Why girls should be geeks, too

Getting more women into technology means starting them young, say the campaigners behind an inspiring school workshop. Rebecca Armstrong finds out how they're giving pupils the hi-tech bug

Where might you find the future stars of the technology industry? At a start-up in California? In a computer science tutorial at one of the country's top universities? Of course. But if you'd gone down to a very damp corner of south London earlier this month, it's likely that you'd have spotted at least some of the coders, games designers and programmers who'll be shaping the tech business for decades to come. Once they're out of their school uniforms, that is.

On International Woman's Day, campaigning technology agency Lady Geek took over two London girls' schools to show pupils from Year 7 and 8 what a career in technology looks like, using inspiring speakers, coding and games-design workshops... as well as prizes such as Xbox 360s and Raspberry Pis for the girls who produced the best work. Called Little Miss Geek, these workshops are the brainchild of Lady Geek CEO Belinda Parmar who is passionate about encouraging more women to look for roles within technology – and believes that the way to do this is to start young. "I want to live in a world where girls like you are our future technologists. I want to live in a world where girls create technology as well as consume it," she tells the girls of St Saviour's and St Olave's in Southwark, who look half shell-shocked and half excited when she tells them that "the future technologists are rock stars".

After screening Code.org's inspiring "Learn To Code" video with Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates (sample quotes: "coding is an incredibly empowering thing to learn" and "it's the closest thing we have to a superpower"), technology journalist Olivia Solon, associate editor of Wired.co.uk, takes to the stage with a confession: "When I was at school, I thought IT classes were really boring," she says. "It was all office skills and preparing to be a secretary. We didn't have the option to code, to create any music, we didn't build websites, we didn't make games, we didn't build robots and we didn't make any films." She goes on to show the girls examples of 3D printing, a conservation project that has created a barcode scanner to identify zebras (really) and London Zoo's interactive Cat Map that lets you log your cat on a map of the world. She's followed by Claire Vyvyan, executive director and general manager of Dell, public sector. The way she speaks of her career in technology would make even a luddite consider retraining.

"The IT I do today saves lives. We write code and programmes that use medical research that lets us diagnose cancer faster, we put satellites into space, I do all kinds of cyber technology with the secret services to make sure we can catch the bad guys in the world." With this hi-tech fire in their bellies, the 11- to 13-year-olds are split into two groups for games design, with Siobhan Reddy, Media Molecule's studio director (the developer that made LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation), and for programming, with ThoughtWorks' Laura Paterson. The room fills with excited chatter as the girls swarm around the hi-spec Dell laptops they will be working on.

The pupils of St Saviour's and St Olave's (and Queen Elizabeth's Girls' in Barnet, where Little Miss Geek spent the morning and introduced the pupils to games writer Rhianna Pratchett, the woman behind the recent Tomb Raider reboot) are lucky.

They have teachers who see the value in teaching technology creatively – and as a creative skill. Across the country, standards of ICT teaching are patchy, at best. Last year Education Secretary Michael Gove suspended the ICT national curriculum (having described it as a "mess" and "dull and derivative"), allowing schools to decide how they teach ICT.

On paper (or indeed on screen) this is a good thing, and, combined with new-look computer-science GCSEs, could improve the image problem ICT, with its PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets, has had, particularly for girls, for whom the situation is particularly grim. Last summer a survey of young people in the UK by O2 showed that just 33 per cent of boys and 17 per cent of girls had learned any computer coding at all. (Coincidentally, the percentage of women working in technology is also, according to an ONS report, a disappointing 17 per cent.)

With a new ICT curriculum due in 2014, some schools are capitalising on the freedom they currently have. Louise Robinson, head of Merchant Taylors' Girls' School in Crosby, and a computer-science and maths graduate herself, explains why she welcomes the chance to reinvigorate ICT teaching. "Engaging girls has been a problem because the GCSE ICT curriculum is stultifying in its requirements to hit every single criteria. Most good schools – including Merchant Taylors' – are now teaching Key Stages 3 and 4 so that they are inspiring and creative." However, not all schools have the resources to be able to teach coding, web design and programming in a meaningful way, she warns. "Most schools won't have a teacher who can teach computing. There hasn't been any growth in the system to put computer science graduates into the classroom. ICT had become so boring, it wasn't worth their while to go into teaching it. Programming and coding are where they have the most difficulty in finding staff."

In their head of ICT, the girls of St Saviour's and St Olave's have a champion who believes computer science is worth all of their whiles. It was a combination of David Talbert's boredom with the ICT curriculum as well as that of his pupils, that saw him tear up the rule book. "All my students used to say they were bored with spreadsheets, bored with PowerPoint presentations – so I thought let's try programming. They've been programming with [simple programming software] Scratch, they do coding, they're making a mobile-phone app in Year 8 – and they enjoy it." His enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. "I've had sixth-form students who've gone on to do computer science at university and they've told me that there's only about two or three girls on the course, and I want to change that. I want to see a 50/50 split."

As the afternoon progresses, the girls are absorbed in their tasks. Stef and Andi have tried their hand at programming, using an educational programming language called Alice, making characters in a pre-created world interact with each other. Now they're editing their own level in a video game, adding different animals, switching between an editor's and player's eye view.

Would they consider a career that involves coding? "Maybe not just coding but another job with coding in it to make the job easier," says Stef. Leila and her work partner Kelly (who go on to win a shiny new Xbox each at the end of the session), are having a good-natured argument over their programming.

"Let's call the troll Leila," says Kelly. "Let's make it say 'Kelly is really annoying!'" replies Leila. But when something goes awry and there's muttering that things aren't working, Leila exclaims "Shush! We don't underestimate technology." Or these girls, apparently.

Later, as the prizes are handed out, I ask Harlee and Danielle whether working in gaming is cool.

"YES!" they shout, grinning. And they've certainly caught the attention of the tech experts here today.

"Keep at it. I hope in a few years time to see your CVs coming into my inbox," grins Laura Paterson.

For more information go to littlemissgeek.org. Rebecca Armstrong is an adviser for Lady Geek

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
fashion
News
news
News
people
Travel
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: The Job An inner city Birmingham sc...

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments