Ignite blazes a trail promoting STEM amongst young women and post-primary students in North West

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  • Sync NI recently had the opportunity to catch up with some members of the ‘Ignite’ forum set up by technology companies in the north-west to promote STEM among young girls and women.

    Their mission is to inspire the next generation of female technologists and spread the word that the technology sector is a hugely creative, exciting and innovative world to be part of.

    Martine O’Doherty has now been working at Fujitsu for eight years and is a member of Ignite.

    “What kept me motivated as a teenager at school was that I wanted to be an underwater photographer for National Geographic. But I’m scared of the deep end of the pool. Terrified! And I cut off people’s heads in my photographs. So when I was choosing college courses, I chose computing, which felt like a relatively new discipline.

    “Once I started I found I loved coding (in Pascal!) but it’s been the problem solving that has been a constant through all the roles I’ve had in technology. I’m constantly learning, sitting at the bottom of the curve, looking up. I want the next generation to know that they too can have a career that is challenging and innovative and will not stagnate.”

    Martine was joined on stage by fellow members of the Ignite forum who shared some of the lessons they have learned with the 250 delegates gathered in Titanic Belfast.

    Allstate’s Kathryn Harkin spoke about the genesis of Ignite, which originated from her company’s existing Lean In Circle and a Women in Technology Group but quickly expanded to include nine local firms.

    “We invited in teachers, students and people from tech companies and 18 months ago at half seven in the morning, 80 people came along, thinking they would have a leisurely breakfast.”

    However, the delegates were quickly put them to work in a ‘design thinking’ exercise to brainstorm and generate a short list of high impact yet low-cost ideas that Ignite could implement locally.

    Recognising the low level of student appreciation of IT and the low awareness of how technology was changing the world never mind careers, the steering group realised that it was important to make role models more visible. “You can’t be what you can’t see!”

    They also sensed the need to build a community, help existing company employees as well as educational stakeholders to better understand the tech sector and improve the engagement of education and the business sector.

    Louise Magee from SITA said that she was “shocked” when only three women were present among the 80 people who attended a company graduate programme. “The beauty about Ignite is that it isn’t focussed on one particular company. We don’t operate in silos. The issues are common.”

    Ignite now run an extensive programme of school visits using a bank of role models, targeting Year 9 girls before they make their GCSE choices. More than 200 students have attended their product design workshops, and provide mentors for A-level students studying Software Systems Development.

    The need to educate girls about the breadth of roles in the technology sector was emphasised by Alison Ballard (Allstate) who said that “it’s not just about coding, we need creative people too”. This is advice that she didn’t have access to at that age. School children had little idea of the work “that happens just down the road from you”, but Ignite was addressing that gap.

    Siobhan Lincoln joined Seagate in 1997 as an engineer and remembers it as “a tough environment” with a typically-skewed gender balance that could be found in many other multi-national companies.While only 10-15% of the factory workforce in Derry were female, when she moved into IT she discovered that the gender balance was worse than engineering. Girls make up 34% of those who study STEM subjects in Northern Ireland, but only 19% of those who study IT.

    “We have a long way to go in IT. I want to ignite a fire within them to choose technology as a career. Even within Derry, who knew that there were nine companies – in fact, there are a lot more than that – who are expanding and recruiting. I feel privileged to be in that situation.”

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