Victoria Logan on holding the first ever CyberFirst EmPower Girls event at Windsor Park Stadium


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  • Photo: Victoria Logan (back row, centre) pictured with local pupils and First and deputy First Ministers

    By Kathryn McKenna

    Victoria Logan of CyberFirst and winner of Tech Advocate of the Year 2024 explains why it is so important to inspire and encourage more young girls into the thriving tech and cyber security industry in Northern Ireland. 

    CyberFirst held its first EmPower Girls event recently, which saw 12 schools attend an immersive experience aimed at inspiring and encouraging a career pathway into the burgeoning world of technology and cyber security in Northern Ireland.  

    The event, which saw 250 Year Eight pupils attend the showstopping surroundings of the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park in partnership with Aflac NI for the day, saw leading representatives from 37 companies across the province engage and interact with female pupils in a series of highly engaging breakout sessions.  

    The jam-packed cross-community schools event also heard from keynote speakers, such as cyber security expert Lisa Forte, in addition to panel sessions with questions from pupils themselves, as well as live cyber security demos and exciting competitions with fantastic prizes.  

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    First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, and deputy First Minister, Emma Little Pengelly, attended the event in a reflection of its significance, which was the first of its kind held specifically to encourage young female pupils into a career in tech and cyber security. 

    Victoria Logan, Cyber Security Communications Delivery Lead at Aflac NI who organised the event alongside Eamonn Brankin, Digital IT Hub Manager at Belfast Metropolitan College, and the rest of the innovative CyberFirst NI team, told Sync NI: “I think it underscores the importance of an event like this to receive such fantastic support in the form of attendance by the First and deputy First Ministers in our very first year. 

    Pictured: Michelle O'Neill took part in the various breakout sessions alongside local pupils.

    I think it went a long way to helping us in the future as well, and to see the buzz of the girls was just fantastic. Whenever Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little Pengelly walked in there were a few gasps in the room and you could see how much the girls were engaged with them. 

    “Michelle and Emma are such important role models for females, both working in the most senior leadership roles in the country, so to have them come and be on stage to talk about the importance of tech and cyber security and the opportunities here will leave a truly lasting impression on the girls who attended.” 

    An impression was certainly made on the pupils, with around 30 per cent of the Year Eight pupils saying they would be interested in considering a career in technology at the beginning of the day. By the end of the session, when asked the same question this amount had been raised to 80 per cent.  

    “We were able to see from this rise that the event really did make a difference,” Victoria enthuses. “Even with the 30 per cent who were interested in a career in tech at the beginning, we would be hopeful that it would help encourage them even further towards it.  

    “For me, if you can make a difference for one person it is worthwhile, so to see 80 per cent of the pupils say they would consider a career in tech in the future, is such a positive to take away from the event. 

    “We wanted to very much get the pupils involved and engaged with all the different activities. People learn in different ways, so it is often about looking at the different ways people can engage with things and what interests them.  

    “Trying to provide a range of different things that are suitable for everybody was key. When I was going through school I always enjoyed doing more activity-based things rather than classroom-based, so I do think it is important to show the pupils the different range. 

    “It was a fantastic day, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I got so much out of seeing the buzz about the place. There was a really brilliantatmosphere and you could see that the girls were really engaging with the different components of the day and it was a lot of fun.” 

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    And Victoria reveals they specifically targeted the Year Eight age-group in order to start the conversation around tech at an early age: “We focused on the first year of secondary school as it is that grassroots level, they are completing their first year of secondary and it is so important to whet their appetite at this age,” Victoria says. 

    “Then in just a matter of months, when they are in Year Nine in September, they can take part in the CyberFirst Girls’ competition which is UK-wide. If they win, they get to go to a location somewhere in the UK and it will be a full day’s celebration. It is all about setting them up for their CyberFirst journey from now, the whole way through to when they graduate.” 

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    Having identified the need for better understanding of the roles available within the technology sector, Victoria is keen as part of her role at CyberFirst to help educate pupils and schools about the exciting opportunities on offer. 

    “Part and parcel of why I am doing what I am now is because I can see all of the amazing opportunities here within tech and cyber. It is also about trying to dispel those myths that you are just going to be sitting at your screen coding all day; or that it is ‘just for the guys.’ 

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    “There is so much more out there; for example, I work within cyber security communications, education and awareness so I am more in the creative side of things. There are so many different career paths which can be mapped back to your interests and what you like doing at school, so I think it is really important at such a young age to let the girls understand that. 

    “It is also important to talk to them about some of the local companies that are here in Northern Ireland, right on their doorstep, from ASOS to Microsoft and so much more.” 

    Victoria adds: “Demonstrating all of the different opportunities to travel; the good pay; and the fact there is such a rich diversity of companies here is so important for these girls to realise. Yes, they are very young, but it helps to plant the seed and hopefully they will remember this day when they are making those important choices for GCSE and A-Level and it will open their horizons. 

    “It is very important especially considering Northern Ireland’s thriving tech and cyber security sector that all young people are at least aware of it.” 

    Plans for next year are to expand the event based on the success of this year’s interest from schools and local companies: 

    “The reason this event is currently focused on girls is because just 23 per cent of the technology sector currently in Northern Ireland are female and we really want to try and help address this imbalance. However, CyberFirst is for all students and all age groups, so it is not to say the EmPower event will not be for a wider audiencein the future. We try to accommodate everyone as far as possible.  

    Pictured: In a mark of the event's significance, First Minister Michelle O'Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly attended to show their support and to encourage more young girls into studying technology subjects. 

    “Next year, we would love to reach 1000 or more students in one day as well as open it up to more companies. We decided to limit our numbers to 250 this year as it was our first year running this event, but within the first five minutes of advertising with our CyberFirst schools we had requests for more than 600 places.  

    CyberFirst is a really great platform to bring all the local companies together to perform schools outreach and it is easier for the companies as we co-ordinate the event for them so they can come along, get their brand out there, engage with students and make a difference.  

    “I think this CyberFirst event brings lots of benefits, because we are bringing together schools, all the industry, academia and government in one central place. I always say ‘we are better together.’” 

    ‘A very inspirational day’ 

    Local participating CyberFirst schools included: Bloomfield Collegiate; Thornhill College; Ballyclare High School; St Patrick’s College, Dungannon; Knockevin Special School; Ballymena Academy; Ballycastle High School; Our Lady’s Grammar School, Newry; St Ronan’s College; Wallace High School; Dromore High and Movilla High School.  

    A representative from Ballymena Academy commented: “From a school perspective - we’re trying to encourage girls to choose an IT related qualification as part of their GCSE and A Level study so giving them exposure to the opportunities as early as possible has been massively beneficial in achieving this. We’re hoping to see the number of girls studying ICT grow. 

    “The girls in Ballymena Academy thought the event was very interesting and fun to find out about all the opportunities available to them both locally and globally around digital technology and cyber security.” 

    Pupils from Movilla High School also thoroughly enjoyed their time at the Cyber First EmPower Girls event, with pupils enthusing: "the day was very inspirational to young women." 

    At a glance: Speaker highlights 

    Pictured: Lisa Forte delivers her keynote address to the captive audience of young girls at Windsor Stadium

    Speaking at the event, First Minister Michelle O’Neill, passionately encouraged the young girls in attendance to ‘challenge themselves.’ She said: “Emma and I wanted to be here today to say well done for leading the way - because you are leading the way for other girls coming behind you. You are the first group of girls that have come together to learn all about cyber and this area of work and all the potential opportunities here. 

    “Believe in yourself. Be confident in yourself. I would ask you all to push your boundaries every day. Do something that makes you feel a wee bit nervous because you'll always learn from that. Sometimes, you'll succeed, sometimes you won't, but you'll always learn a lesson.  

    “We hope that you've had a fabulous day and you go away today, knowing something a bit more about this area of work and you tell others all about it, because women and girls deserve to be in this area of work also.” 

    Meanwhile, deputy First Leader, Emma Little Pengelly added: " There are all kinds of people who want to bring us down or tell us we can't do things. But Michelle and I are two girls, two women, who are at the top of the Northern Ireland government doing everything that we can to try to work to make the world – and Northern Ireland - the best place it can be for you. 

    “That's why it'sabsolutely fantastic to be here today talking about all things tech, because we want to encourage more girls and more women to get involved in tech. I hope you really keep your interest in tech and that you seriously consider this as a career. Because if we're going to make Northern Ireland really shine in the world, we need to be at the forefront of the best workforce in the world doing the most exciting things in technology and the digital space.” 

    During opening comments host Catherine McCourt, Head of Engineering at Aflac NI, an American supplemental health care insurance company that established their Technology Centre of Excellence in Belfast nearly five years ago, spoke of her shock when she first recognised the lack of female representation in the tech industry here.  

    Pictured: Catherine McCourt, Head of Engineering at Aflac NI

    Speaking of the moment in her career, Catherine said: ““It took me years to figure out, but in the IT and cyber security industry, it is only 23 per cent female and 77 per cent male in Northern Ireland. You may find that hard to believe, but that's a fact. 

    “Having graduated from university and spent a few years in the industry, I really liked my job. It was interesting, it was challenging. I had a really good salary and good promotion opportunities.  

    “But I was mad - because other girls I knew were working just as hard as me in different jobs, for less money, for less promotion opportunities. 

    “And I was really mad that somehow all of the possibilities of the IT industry were being kept a secret from girls. No one was telling girls what it was really like to work in cyber and IT. 

    “Jobs in IT and cyber security are so varied and changing so fast and there's hardly a skill you could shout out to me, that would not be useful in the industry. When I think of working in IT I think about creative problem solving, working as a team to overcome obstacles together, and great communication to make sure the whole team works together in harmony. Not only that, but some of the most important developments in our society are being driven by the IT and cyber security industry.” 

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    During her empowering keynote address Lisa Forte also urged the young girls in attendance to follow their goals. She emphasised: “Don't be afraid of thinking about having those big dreams and doing things and becoming whatever it is you want to become, because I was the shy kid at school who was a bit of a loner and didn't have lots of friends. Now I run my own company and I travel around the world. 
    “Whatever it is you want to do, whatever it is you want to be - just have the confidence to go after it and dream big.” 

    Students, Schools, Industry can learn more about the initiative and how to get involved here: 

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