Women in Tech Festival panel shares ideas and strategies to make girls and women aware of the possibilities of tech careers - at all ages
At the Women in Technology Festival, Neha Batra, Head of Business Solutions at Dominos Pizza, UK & I and Emily Hall-Strutt, Director of Next Tech Girls, discussed how to inspire more girls and young women to consider a technology career. At the moment, girls make up around half of science A-level entries but only 23% in physics, 37% in maths and 15% in computing. Fewer than a fifth of engineering and computing undergraduates are women. Where girls do pursue sciences, they focus on caring - medicine and veterinary sciences are heavily dominated by young women.
Interestingly, recent research also suggests that girls are put off pursuing these subjects because they know they will be in a minority. Neha Batra explained that, where she grew up in India, the opposite is true.
"Where I come from there is a pressure to learn science and technology," she said. "It's a no brainer for that side of the world."
Alas on this side of the world it isn't so. Teenage girls ruling themselves out of well-paid occupations on the basis of misconceptions about what those occupations involve is upsetting. The "tech nerd" stereotype isn't just annoying and out of date - it's powerful and damaging to both the individuals missing out on opportunities and also the companies failing to engage talent. As Batra commented:
"This the best time to be in tech! When I joined, I had to work nine to five in an office at a desk. Now there are so many more options. And it's not just coding. It's business analysis, it's AI. All of us who are in some way connected to tech, or to the tech community we should share our experiences. You don't need to be a nerd!"
Emily Hall-Strutt explains why she thinks schools might be - unintentionally - perpetuating some of these stereotypes. There was widespread agreement threaded throughout the discussion that the present curriculum is wholly inadequate at attracting students or equipping them with the kind of transferable skills that the industry requires.
"The computing curriculum focuses quite heavily on the kinds of skills that you might need if you did want to become a software developer or maybe work in IT support. It doesn't look at product management. It doesn't look at UX design. It doesn't look at so many of the other roles that exist in tech that might appeal to lots of people."
Hall-Strutt also made the point that girls have generally limited access to female tech role models. You can't blame young people for thinking that you have to be a macho white man to succeed in tech when that's exactly what the tech industry keeps telling them via its imagery and messaging.
"We try to show that, yes women are underrepresented in tech, but there are lots of women working in tech and they all have such great variety of experience and come from lots of different educational and ethnic backgrounds. I think it's really important for girls to see those women. People like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg perpetuate that myth that they are the kind of person that you need to be succeed in tech.
"We hope that every girl who looks at our social media or goes to one of our events or does a work experience placement will see or speak to a woman who they can relate to and who they can also see themselves potentially following in their footsteps."
The research mentioned earlier, and Batra's early experiences of simply being expected to study science and maths raises questions about the value of educating girls separately - at least in certain subjects. If girls know they will be in a minority they are much more likely to rule themselves out. Batra wasn't keen, saying that school environments should replicate real life. Hall-Strutt, whilst acknowledging the power of that argument, pointed to research suggesting the importance of the cohort effect, and explained how Next Tech Girls try to replicate that.
"At all girls schools girls will pick computer science if they offer it at GCSE and A level, and at mixed schools that isn't usually the case. At A-level girls may start out studying computing, realise they are in a minority and then drop it and change subjects. There's definitely something to be said for a feeling of community, feeling like you're not the only one. There are also organisations where they've run code clubs specifically for girls and get way more girls coming to those than to mixed clubs. There have also been studies that show that all girls schools are better for girls, whereas mixed schools are better for boys.
"Ultimately, if women are to progress in these fields, some girls and women are going to have to be brave and go first. It isn't easy to be the only woman in a room but we are where we are. Next Tech Girls introduces girls in different schools so they can form friendships and networks which they can draw strength from to help them counter some of the more negative aspects of being in a minority in their own schools. It's a really positive and helpful strategy. The earlier women can start forming networks, the better."
Selling tech careers to young women and girls is important and necessary. But an audience member raised the fact that careers are far less linear than those of old, with many people switching careers multiple times.
"At Next Tech Girls with every online event that we've run that we try to have at least one woman on the panel to who is a career switcher," replied Hall-Strutt. "There's this belief that you pick your A- levels, pick an industry and then you stick with it forever. So we're trying to bust that myth through our events."
Hall-Strutt talked of a recent event for Black History Month, where four Black women who all took very different routes into technology shared their experiences. One had taken the classic computer science degree route, one was doing a degree apprenticeship, another former English teacher realised that she could do a master's in computer science without having studied it before and another pivoted from midwifery to UX design.
Both panellists made the point that employers also need to be more open and flexible if they are to find the skills they need - and not just at entry level, as Batra explains:
"It's very important for every organisation to constantly review roles and make them more relevant to the changing times. There's no point in having outdated job descriptions that don't resonate with today's technology or environment. I've worked with tech companies where we cross train people because they had that industry knowledge. Organisations should also be open to getting people in who have different industry experiences, not just at an entry level."