Roundtable: Inspiring young women to go into STEM careers

  • Does awareness need to be made among wider society, with teachers, employers and parents?

    Susan has seen this problem first-hand, noting that Bring IT On visit 141 (two-thirds) of Northern Ireland’s schools to spread this awareness of careers in tech.

    They ask kids, “What do you perceive to be somebody who works in IT?” and aim to dispel the usual stereotypes of sitting in a dark corner coding for hours on end. Their approach in engaging school children is to ask the young people questions such as “Have you thought about the jobs that are involved in developing Snapchat? There’s everything from business analysts, project managers and designers to obviously, software engineers, testers and UX designers.”

    The Bring IT On programme, funded by the Department for the Economy and run by Belfast Met, has seen recent success with a new matching service through its Ambassador Initiative, in which companies can register to be matched with a school that they will then support. The programme includes mentoring of ICT, Digital Media and Careers teachers, and provides pupils with talks on careers and technology. The scheme encourages closer collaboration between schools and business, with 20 ambassadors having been matched with schools so far.

    Alternative educational schemes

    Diane Morrow’s mTech.Academy programme also works closely with industry and schools to promote STEM education to both pupils and parents. The scheme took in over 300 young people last year and had a measurable impact, with only 62% of parents having considered STEM career options for their children before the programme compared to 100% after it.

    Diane explained exactly how the mTech. Academy programme pans out; “We are in one class for an hour for 14 weeks, and we are in ICT classes, English classes, R.E. classes, the works.

    “We kick off in September and we work with them right the way through until February because GCSE subject choices are round February and March. We looked at supporting ICT skills at Key Stage 3 and we have mapped a curriculum around that which is all around project-based learning.“

    The Deloitte-sponsored ‘Generation Innovation’ programme has been a similar success, taking sixth-form students on a week-long mission to solve a real-world tech industry type problem. “They take a challenge given from industry and they work through it,” explained Diane, adding that “it really allows young people to see the wide range of UX and UI tech that they can work with. The research that we used to put into the programme for launch was phenomenal.”

    Pairing industry with education

    Steps are being taken towards helping educators become more comfortable in teaching specialised subjects, with support offered to schools from the wider digital community and industry. CCEA is working with the Department of Education, Education Authority, and the Education and Training Inspectorate on its ‘Learning Leaders’ initiative.

    Pamela explained that the scheme is an attempt to promote collaborative working, the sharing of best practice through professional learning communities and networks, and the strengthening of leadership capacity in our schools.

    Under the Learning Leaders programme, teachers don’t have to rely on getting specific training themselves but can also use the experiences of their colleagues and industry to help deliver digital learning. As part of the programme, CCEA is working on progression pathways for Digital Skills that will help teachers upskill to implement computational thinking and coding in the classroom. The pathway will enable teachers to identify ways of delivering computational thinking and coding through teaching, learning and assessment, and will encourage heads of departments to embed computational thinking and coding within Key Stage 3.

    The need to pair schools with industry more closely was a key idea that came out of the roundtable discussion. Sarah Milliken is the leader of talent and culture at Aflac, a US insurance company that has recently set up a base in Belfast. She suggested: “If we were able to pair teachers with a mentor in industry to help get that learning across, it would make the classroom more relevant and teaching would be practical rather than conceptual with real world examples.”

    Engaging students in the classroom

    Narelle explained that while there are amazing things going on in industry and young girls are being given a lot of opportunities, it often doesn’t translate back into the classroom: “We're getting them ready and we're getting them really excited. But then they go back into the classroom. You can inspire somebody so much but unless they have resilience and grit - if they are going back into an environment where they're not given the opportunity to put into practice all the things that businesses are talking about, they're switched off.”

    A recurring theme of the roundtable discussion was the idea that ICT and computing subjects should be taught in a more interesting and accessible way that reflects the real-life careers those skills are used in. Most of the young people coming through the pipeline are those who show resilience to persevere through a qualification they perceive to be boring or particularly difficult, and this resilience is needed in the workplace too. How many talented young people is the local tech industry losing out on because they find the subjects too mundane in the first place?

    Getting parents on board

    Parental influence isn’t to be underestimated when young people are choosing their careers, which is why several schemes right now are aimed at educating parents about tech opportunities too. Camilla spoke about’s focus on parental influence and how it’s helped change young minds:

    “People in companies are busy doing what they do, and they don’t have all the time in the world to promote tech careers. I launched as a portal to digital opportunity only last year and it’s amazing how engaged parents get all of a sudden when you get in front of them and give a message that resonates. We ran open nights and promoted on social media, and parents turned up with their young people and engaged online.”

    One of the big factors in getting parents on board with careers in tech has been the rise of degree apprenticeships, assured skills academies, and other earn-as-you-learn schemes. “[Parents] liked the idea of access to a degree with no fees to pay, that their young people could go straight to an employer and start working out of school and at the end of it they were getting a degree qualification,” Camilla explained. “Suddenly we had students diverting into wanting to do a degree in technology, and that was something that was only decided at the very end of their school years.”

    What do talent leaders actually look for?

    With the range of skills used in industry, it can be difficult for parents and young people to choose a degree from the numerous choices and subsectors various universities offer. Sam noted that often when people are graduating from universities, “they are not ready for the industry and the courses don’t always equip them with the skills that they need.” Current degrees may not relate specifically to a job role at the end of education, and may be missing valuable skills employers want.

    So what do talent leaders actually look for in new candidates for their organisations? Lisa Gepp is the lead consultant for university and entry level talent at Allstate Northern Ireland.

    She said that “it’s really important for them to be good problem solvers, to have very logical thinking, and they must be inquisitive. To want to learn is so important, especially coming into a big company like Allstate. You can be very good at maths, the sciences and IT, but if you don’t have those other soft skills, you’re not going to succeed.”

    PA Consulting’s Maeve Dunseath added: “We are a consultancy, so we speak to our clients every single day. We present to them, and people need to be able to effectively and confidently communicate with them.” Maeve is relatively new to PA Consulting and looks after the firm’s internal learning and development, along with the university engagements and all the STEM activities.

    Sarah Milliken suggested that it all comes down to the traits of resilience and adaptability: “Sometimes we’re very good through university at ‘handholding’ quite a lot. I would much prefer someone who's maybe done the wrong undergrad degree and done a conversion course or something to come in, because they're hungry for it.”

    Sam agreed that firms would “rather have a well-rounded individual with a great attitude that will persevere to problem solve and get the work done, as opposed to someone that is just technically strong.”

    This is a trend seen across the industry, with Pauline noting that people retrain into tech from a variety of disciplines: “A couple of folks I’ve worked with for example have psychology degrees. When they do a Master's conversion into something computer-related at that stage, they’re more mature and make a conscious decision of what they want.”

    Although the skills shortage in Northern Ireland makes it much easier for graduates to get a job in software engineering in Northern Ireland, Pauline warned against students being complacent based on purely academic performance: “I would agree with Sam on needing that ability to ‘self-start’. There’s a sense of self-entitlement with some new graduates that they can walk into a job anywhere, but really it’s so competitive.”

    Should IT be mandatory?

    The tech sector in Northern Ireland shows no sign of slowing down, and the future of work will always be tied to new technology, so should software engineering and tech be mandatory in the same way that Maths and English are? Many of those at the roundtable agreed that the existing culture in schools with regard to tech is already changing. Pamela commented; “It could be a while to see that change in society, but how do we switch society onto this? Is it something that needs to be done with the parents and the wider community?”

    Roisin noted that in most schools only one out of around 36 classroom periods per week is currently devoted to careers, adding: “You have to go into the root cause of the problem in terms of looking at how time is given to students over here to inform them. That again, is looking at the school governance system in terms of how funding is allocated, and then the tick box exercise in terms of how the curriculum is taught. Certainly more time towards looking at careers should be focused on and shared with teachers and parents.”

    There have been a number of schemes over the years to help encourage young women to take up STEM subjects and aim for careers in tech, but there’s a definite need for a more unified industry approach. Speaking about these schemes, Maeve noted that “there are lots of people doing different things but there’s no one thing that is totally connected.” Diane similarly commented on how great it would be to have “one really connected, holistic drive instead of lots of different pockets” when it comes to pairing industry with education.

    What are the solutions?

    The NI tech industry recognises that there are problems encouraging young women to take up jobs in tech, but what’s the solution? Is enough being done to engage girls in STEM education, or is the problem that too many smaller spinout programmes are occurring rather than one cohesive effort to combine industry with academic initiatives? Many young women can’t see themselves in STEM career roles, and perhaps that has more to do with stereotyping and visibility of actual industry roles.

    Narelle pointed out that funding sits at the heart of many current issues, such as allowing teachers out of the classroom to get upskilled: “Get businesses to provide the funding for schools to enable that to happen, and to get cover teachers so that educators can get out of the classroom to learn and bring something new and innovative back to the school. Allow young people out of the classroom and into the workplaces to get the experience so that there’s a journey for the teacher to develop their skills and capabilities.”

    The solution to both problems may lie in industry helping to support alternative educational programmes that sit alongside the normal education routes. Diane noted that the stats coming out of mTech.Academy are extremely promising but more sponsorship, funding and partner companies are needed to help them reach more schools -- the scheme had 40 applications in June but couldn’t take all 40 at their current level of support.

    “One of the biggest eye-openers is getting our head teachers and middle leaders into each of your offices,” explained Diane. “Then we start to see what we’re delivering in schools doesn’t necessarily match in terms of getting young people employment ready – and that’s a big, big challenge.”

    Final thoughts...

    This roundtable discussion was a positive step toward solving the problems between education and industry, but it’s clear that real change is needed if we want to avoid having the same conversation in another 10 years. It’s time for government, academia and industry to come together with a stronger, united approach in helping young women realise their full STEM potential.

    This article first appeared in the Women in Tech special edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download a FREE copy here. 

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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