I know the statistics – that only 7% of Computing A-level students last year were girls, and that women in UK technology jobs is on a downward trend, currently at 17%. But it has always seemed strange to me. I was from a fairly techie family and we were three daughters competing for time on the TRS-80 III computer and high-powered cassette tape drive. My older sister was the one who showed me the intrigue of the .alt groups – some kind of mysterious tech underworld – when I was a teenager. She went on to get a PhD in Computer Science and while we joked that she wound up in CS because she always stood in the shortest lines to sign up for classes, we all knew that she was great at what she did and really enjoyed it at a time when computer science was opening up and revealing its potential.
My dad shared techie stuff with us as a matter of course, and never seemed to assume that there was any gender-based reason we wouldn’t be interested. From a young age I had a lot of exposure and support for any techie – or for that matter quantitative – pursuits that I expressed an interest in. And extrapolating from a data set of *one* – my conclusion is that we need to get girls going in tech (and math and science) before they have any social inhibitions about it, before they realise there’s any reason *not* to pursue it.
I agree with the catch phrase going around that “grade 8 is too late.” WAY too late. I talked this morning with a young computer scientist and asked her what she thought about this. She expressed a view that I’ve come across before – that the intrinsic gender split (to the extent that there is one) comes from the fact that a lot of boys enjoy the code for its own sake, but that a lot of girls are all about the *why*. They want to make something that is useful, beyond the pure joy of coding. Maybe that’s why we’ve got about 40% girls signed up so far for Fire Tech Camp! We are teaching kids to *create* things – video games, apps, robots – using the tools of technology. We hope that this will give them appetite to learn more tech skills, as a way to innovate and develop more complex solutions over time.
But the initial focus is not on the tools but the output. In order to re-brand tech in the eyes of A-level and university women, we have to get them young. The girls that go to Fire Tech Camp this year will (hopefully!) bring their friends back next year. And they will march into tech classes at schools across the UK with their heads up, with an appetite for learning the tools that allow them to create the apps, blogs, new products that are important to them! I hope that the girls who come through our programmes will scratch their heads when the “girls in tech” question comes up, surprised that it’s such a big issue, because they will have been programming since they were kids. That’s the contribution that I hope that Fire Tech Camp can make this year – in some small way -to getting more girls coding in the UK!
(Photo: Mimosa, the flower of International Women’s Day, credit to ilgiardinodiSara.wordpress.com)