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School teachers 'lack the ability and experience' to inspire girls interested in tech

Successful women in tech say the lack of visible female role models tempered their passions for the industry

Just twenty years ago the extent of computer classes in education was typing tests and PowerPoint tutorials. Words like 'IT' and 'coding' were vague, intimidating concepts easily avoided with English, history and art classes.

It's only been until relatively recently that modernised IT lessons have taken shape, despite the grip that technology has on our everyday lives. This has sent many ill-equipped job seekers scurrying to catch up in a rapidly changing market, one that within the next twenty years will require digital skills in over 90% of positions.

The shortage of people prepared to fill these jobs is a major issue in the UK, where computing teachers are near extinct and 54% of schools are unable to offer computer science GCSEs, according to the Royal Society.

Looking at the skills gap, it's impossible not to consider the potential of women to fill these positions, at a time when only 17% of the tech workforce is female.

An array of obstacles stand in the way of equality in tech, however.

A major issue occurs in the education pipeline. Engagement between boys and girls in computer science is relatively equal in primary schools, but by secondary school, female uptake rates drop to only 20% of computer science GCSEs. The Department of Education's report for 2017 showed that at A-level, this number fell as low as 0.4%.

David Rydeheard works at the University of Manchester as a senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science, where 24% of the staff are female a comparatively high number for UK universities. He pinpoints primary and secondary education as the source of the problem, adding that school teachers are not comfortable with new computer science curriculum.

"Teachers are non-specialists at that level; essentially nobody has any technical ability at all," he tells IT Pro.

A woman in the classroom

What happens, then, when you do get a teacher with technical ability in front of a group of young children? It might not be enough if that teacher doesn't also encourage girls to participate.

Caitlyn Merry, a former computer science teacher who now works at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, says her experiences prove that a female teacher can make a huge difference when it comes to encouraging girls to learn digital skills. After making websites for people as a hobby throughout law school, Merry switched career paths and taught at a low-income secondary school through the Teach First charity.

"I had one class of all boys," Merry says in regards to her first year in the position. "I think it was because from the year before the other computing teacher had recruited them, and he was male."

Merry did her best to reverse this. During her four years at the school, at which computer science was not mandatory, Merry encouraged girls into her class and combined the gender-segregated after-school clubs. By the end of her second year, she had become the head of the department and brought an immediate influx of girls into the class. And by her third year, almost half of the students were girls, which accurately reflected the demographics of the school.

"The most important symbolic thing for the girls, I think, was having a female teacher for the subject," she tells IT Pro. "I made sure the classroom had positive female role models in tech."

Merry also used hands-on activities for her lessons and let students play with Raspberry Pi in her classroom throughout lunch, which she felt fostered more excitement than lectures. Several of her students have since gone on to study STEM subjects at the University of Cambridge.

The case of the missing role model

While Caitlyn Merry's interest in technology won over her childhood belief that the subject was "a gendered thing", the amount of women that slip through the cracks is difficult to measure. Merry provided her students with examples of women in tech, including herself, but many success stories fail to get exposure in the wider industry.

"People often tell me there is a lack of female role models, but a search for women in tech on YouTube comes up with 23 million results," says Helen Wollaston, chief executive of WISE, a charity that pushes for gender equality across STEM fields.

"There are some amazing women in tech around, but girls and their families don't get to meet them."

Raspberry Pi coder Magdalena Jadach is a female role model to the girls in Code Club, a Raspberry Pi-hosted tech workshop for children. When she first got started, she, like so many others, knew nothing of successful female coders.

After struggling with a dense Python manual and the belief that at 28 she was too old to learn something so complicated, Jadach finally attended an all-female HTML workshop.

"I only went there to prove to myself that I wouldn't understand how to code," she says.

However, on the day of what Jadach called her "transformation", she met women who, because of their different backgrounds, were able to more effectively teach Jadach coding and eventually kick-start her move to Raspberry Pi two years ago.

Jadach stressed the importance of building a better world for kids, which she feels she can do at Code Club by providing an example that a female "can become a software developer one day and it's not a childish idea without a future".

Though there are success cases, 'late bloomers' who broke through the barriers of the industry without much of a tech background, these women can't be used as excuses for an education system that otherwise fails to encourage girls to gain digital skills.

Nicola Entwistle of Mastercard's Digital Payments team tells us that she might have caught on more quickly at Mastercard if she had gotten into tech at a younger age.

"IT wasn't seen as a sexy subject," Entwistle said of her early education. "There was no real focus into how interesting it could possibly be. I didn't even think of it as an option."

Instead, Entwistle earned an MBA in business administration and worked in sales, selling vendor spots at conferences where she was exposed to Mastercard. She joined the team with no tech experience, but was lucky to be part of a company with a CEO, Ajaypal Banga, who pushes for gender equality in both junior and senior positions. Mastercard also paid for her to take a coding class and encourages its employees to volunteer to get more females into tech.

However, during her time mentoring in Mastercard's Girls4Tech programme and speaking at UK universities, she has heard many fears from females who feel STEM is too complicated or difficult to get into. She credits this fear to the little publicity that successful females get, as well as the lack of knowledge of what opportunities abound in a STEM career.

"Until you're in it, you don't know anything about [STEM]," says Entwistle. "And I think that's the issue."

What's being done?

Efforts from government, industry, universities and charities are all crucial to figuring out effective ways to encourage girls into tech subjects and keep them there if we ever want to close the gender and skills gaps in technology.

The UK government is expected to spend 39 billion on pupils aged between 5-16 between 2017/18, with a further 3 billion on early years. This figure was set to fall during the 2018/2019 period, but the government has boosted funding by an additional 1.3 billion, although this will still be lower than what schools received in 2015/16 if we account for inflation.

The recently launched Institute of Coding also promises to help bridge the skills gap by bringing together a consortium of 60 Universities, businesses and industry experts, including David Rydeheard's University of Manchester.

A core part of the 20 million initiative will be to encourage greater diversity within technology-based education, done through a series of tailored workshops for teachers and students alike and a packet of tips to help teachers inspire girls' tech interests, such as activity-based lessons.

WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) is another of many organisations with the goal of increasing the number of women in tech. It creates competitions, projects and initiatives for schools and other groups to implement. One major project is People Like Me, a 2015 collaboration with techUK that will launch digitally this summer, and includes lesson plans for teachers and a personality quiz to match young girls to women like them in the tech industry.

Digital skills are more important today than ever, providing the opportunity for social mobility for anyone with the drive to pursue a tech career. But the infrastructure must be there from the beginning to support students of all backgrounds, male and female.

"The skills shortage is holding back business growth and limiting innovation because we are missing out on the richness of ideas which women could bring to the table," said WISE's Wollaston. "And women are missing out on exciting and well-paid careers."

Image: Shutterstock

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