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

Rebecca Armstrong
Wednesday 20 March 2013 19:00

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

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