How Next Tech Girls is connecting girls with role models and work placements to help them develop the skills they need for a tech career
The Women in Tech Festival taking place on 31st October is a celebration of the women shaping the technology industry at all levels. Among the array of inspirational speakers and panellists is Emily Hall-Strutt, Director of Next Tech Girls, an award-winning social enterprise which runs tech focused events and work experience placements for teenage girls, especially those from ethnic minority and/or lower income backgrounds.
Earlier this month Next Tech Girls ran workshops with the Ministry of Justice and Sky, and work experience placements with Tesco, Lyst, HMPPS and Addleshaw Goddard. In addition, more than 100 girls and women took part in a meet-up organised with technical apprenticeship provider Makers. Currently, it is signing up students for online coding events for the next school year.
Computing caught up with Emily and some Next Tech Girls alumni, some now working in tech and others who had recently completed placements, to discuss how varied the routes into a relatively well paid and rewarding tech career can be and understand how we can encourage more young women from diverse backgrounds into the field.
The first myth busted by the Next Tech Girls (NTG) Director and plenty of the young women who have undertaken NTG work placements is that of there being only one, university-based path into technical careers.
"More than a third of our placement students aren't currently studying computer science," Hall-Strutt explains. "I think less than 20% of computer science students at any level identify as girls or women. If we were only offering placements to those girls it would keep the pool very small."
Geneva Warren is a degree apprentice software developer at Jaguar Land Rover and has just completed her second year.
"I came straight out of A-levels and did this instead of going to university. I did my Next Tech Girls work placement in 2018 when I was in year 10. My dad found the scheme through Facebook. Neither of my parents work in the tech industry so we didn't have any connections or a way in but that's why the company is so good because it helps you make those connections. It made me realise I did want to study computer science.
"At the time Computer Science GCSE was my favourite but I wasn't sure what area I wanted to be in or if it was definitely for me. I saw how teams worked and I worked with a very software heavy team and I realised I really liked the way that worked and it showed me real life applications. I really enjoyed it and I could see myself working there or with similar teams. It convinced me I was on the right track and picking the right options."
Geneva looked at the degree and apprenticeship routes side by side and opted for the latter.
"With lots of computer science jobs you need experience. For me, it made the most sense to go to an apprenticeship because even though it will take me a year longer I'll have my bachelors and four years of work experience. It just made a lot more sense to me."
Geneva is currently part of a team managing the software used to run Jaguar Land Rover test platforms.
Of course, some Next Tech Girls alumni have taken the more academic graduate route. Naamua Dodoo is a graduate software engineer at Tesco working in the web development team.
"I got into programming through school and did GSCE computer science, A-level and then a BSc in Computer Science. I did three placements through NTG when I was 15 and 16, and I went through those placements to reassure myself and understand if this really was the direction I wanted to go in. You learn a lot of theory in education but I wanted to be sure this was what I wanted to do in the future."
Naamua was the only person in her school year to opt for Computer Science at A-level. Fortunately her school was prepared to run a course for her, but unfortunately that's far from the norm. State schools are often under resourced in this subject and many don't even offer the option of Computer Science at GCSE.
Lily Barns will shortly begin her final GCSE year, and had just completed her first week of work experience at software company hyperexponential when we spoke.
"I've always been interested in maths and science and in computer science too but was a bit let down by school because we don't have a very good department for it," Lily said.
"I didn't end up choosing it and I'm glad I didn't because it's been a bit of a shambles. But it is something I'd consider teaching myself outside of school especially after being here."
Why schools are struggling
Emily Hall-Strutt outlined why she thinks a lot of schools are struggling to provide good quality computing education.
"We have a real lack of people willing and able to teach computer science. I think the benefits of working in the tech industry far outweigh those of teaching it to young people.
"Another problem, I think, in schools where they are offering computer science is that the people teaching it often haven't ever worked in the industry. They haven't got up-to-date experience or knowledge of what working in tech really looks like because they've only really got that academic background. They're more inclined to spread this misinformation that's really not helpful, like you have to be amazing at maths to work in tech or that every role in tech requires some coding experience, which we know isn't true."
Building a community
As well as setting up placements and helping girls and young women to develop the soft skills that will help them unlock opportunities in the future, Next Tech Girls is helping young women build their early networks, Hall-Strutt explains.
"One of the benefits of what we're doing is the community that we're fostering among the girls that do our placements, but also with the women that we've worked with as well as role models."
Many women working in technology are familiar with the feeling of loneliness and extra pressure that sometimes arises from being the only woman in the room.
"We try to get placements in groups and have girls from different schools, so they can meet girls who have got those similar interests. If you're the only person like you in a group that can be quite daunting and you can start to doubt yourself and wonder if it's really for you. At least if you know there are other girls out there, I think that can make a big difference. That's a big part of what we're trying to do as well as kind of bring these girls together who might be the only one in their school that's interested in tech and help them find friends in other schools who have got similar interests that will help to keep them going."
Emily Hall-Strutt has been shortlisted for the TechWomen100 individual award, and Next Tech Girls has been shortlisted for Network of the Year. Contact Emily via LinkedIn.
She will be speaking at the Computing and CRN Women in Tech Festival on Tuesday 31 October in London; the meeting place for women working in tech, those who aspire to and for any tech organisation wanting to enhance diversity, make unrivalled connections, and empower and cultivate women leaders.
Individual delegates will have opportunities to connect with mentors and access practical advice on how to progress their careers.
Find out more here.