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Attracting more girls into technology and engineering

  • Rakuten’s Cera McArdle delves into the forces at play in attracting women into tech careers and actions that can be taken in the workplace and throughout the education system

    At present, 50% of our population are being under-represented in technology and engineering. 

    When I was approached to consider what could be done to attract more young girls into Technology and Engineering, I analysed my own journey to becoming a software engineer. I wanted to get some insight into the forces that shaped that journey; considering both the positive forces that helped me on my journey and the negative forces that might have derailed my journey.

    I found it instructive to think about the issue in this way, as it perhaps reveals a framework to action change – how can we use our influence to maximise positive forces and blunt negative forces at play.

    We all play multiple roles in life: manager, mentor, interviewer, teacher, parent, coach, colleague. In each of these roles, we have opportunities to exert our influence at various stages of the journey.

    Action in the Workplace

    In order to attract more females into Technology and Engineering, we need to ensure that when they reach the end goal – a career in Technology – that this is a career they actually enjoy. The fundamentals of this: 

    a) a level-playing field where individuals are judged on merit, not on gender and

    b) a culture which is equally inclusive of females and males

    In the Decision-maker role, the Gender Pay Gap in technology companies is a straightforward issue to resolve, provided the appetite is there to recognise and resolve it. Examine the average pay of men and women at the same level of the organisation, analyse the results and adjust benefit packages accordingly.   

    In the Recruitment role, everyone selecting or interviewing candidates should be educated to understand their own Unconscious Bias; so that they can take steps to ensure that it does not affect the recruitment process.

    As Colleagues, there is an onus on everyone to ensure that the activities engaged in and language used are not unwelcoming to one gender or another. A company with a ‘beer-culture’ is typically going to deter females from joining the company. Where inappropriate language or events does emerge, it is the responsibility of all of us to challenge this. For more senior people, we should be ‘riding shot-gun’ in the day-to-day operations - stamping out cultural issues and ensuring safe passage for more junior female employees.

    In the Mentor role, I feel responsible for encouraging the development of capability and confidence of engineers just starting out. A key aspect of this is to be able to intimately understand and communicate their progress. In this way everyone can be judged on competence instead of confidence, and we avoid possible bias including gender bias.

    Action in University/Post School

    In my experience, the culture in university technology courses can be quite ‘nerdy’ and often male-dominated. In the relatively uncontrolled melting-pot that constitutes university life, it is difficult to control some aspects of this, but there are a few critical touchpoints.

    In my own university experience, I found the best mechanism for combating this was having a fair assessment system. I worked hard and the results I achieved through an equitable assessment system were the vehicle for getting recognition at university, and obtaining a great graduate job.    

    In the Assessment role, everyone should be educated to understand and combat their own unconscious bias. Where possible assessments should be done blind – i.e., without the person’s name on the work being assessed. This is the only way that students can be judged on merit.   

    In the Course Director role, it is vital to showcase career opportunities in Technology and Engineering for both genders by bringing in individuals from tech companies to speak to the students. It is particularly important that the females invited to speak to the students include those working in very technical roles, to combat the unspoken but common bias in tech companies that women are great at managing but not so strong at programming.     

    One pivotal point in the student’s development is their work placement. A great placement can be the start of a really fulfilling career; a poor placement can be difficult to overcome. Placement opportunities should be made available in an equitable way. They should not be allocated on a who-complains-least basis where the most ‘agreeable’ students get the least-effective placements. This impacts more on young women as ‘agreeable’ characteristics tend to be nurtured more in girls than boys.   

    Action in Post-Primary Level

    The Teacher plays a critical role here in building capability and sparking enthusiasm in the students, especially in the key STEM subjects. My own Maths teacher at school was incredibly passionate about the subject, and this love of Mathematics has stayed with me. My Physics teacher ran a computer club at lunchtime - at a time when no-one had a computer at home. This gave us the opportunity to write Basic programs to do fun things – I still remember the picture of the Mandlebrot set! 

    In the Tutor and Parent roles, the subject choices for A-level and GCSE are vital, as dropping some subjects can close the door on a career in Science and Technology. For example, some IT companies will not consider applicants who have not done A-level Mathematics. To that end, subjects should be chosen on the basis of opening doors to careers instead of being chosen as it is easier to get good grades. In my experience female student are much more results-focussed than male students at school, so choosing subjects to maximise exam results may impact more on female students. It is also worth reflecting and challenging the Hidden Curriculum within the school setting, which plays a role in persuading young women to pursue traditionally female subjects like Home Economics at the expense of subjects like Design & Technology – again closing doors on potential careers in Technology at a later stage. 

    The Career Advisor role is also pivotal. When I was at school the running joke was at the individual interviews, the career of ‘nurse’ was suggested to each girl in the class and the career of ‘doctor’ was suggested to each boy in the class. So my mum, knowing my mathematical inclinations, sent me to talk to my cousin who was in Trinity in Dublin studying Computer Science, to see if it might be for me. This antiquated version of career guidance is long-gone, but I do think that some schools may be more inclined to encourage female students into the traditional solicitor, accountant, dentist routes, pushing Technology and Engineering careers down the list. I think there is a perception that unless you are obsessed with computers and glued to playing video games, that a career in Tech is not for you.

    Action at Primary Level

    Principals and Teachers have been making efforts to establish extra-curricular activities such as I.T. classes and coding clubs – this is certainly welcome. The anecdotal evidence is that even in these clubs, the participation rates are higher for boys than girls. As a parent I observed subconscious bias at play within the I.T. realm; the girls were directed more towards creating digital art whereas the boys were directed more towards construction activities such as using Scratch. This re-enforces gender stereotypes at a formative age.

    As you would expect, moving earlier up the age spectrum the role of Parent is increasingly influential. The messages we pass on are subtle and subliminal but have a profound effect on our children. When choosing toys for our daughters, do we choose a play kitchen or a construction set? Do we choose a colouring set or a logic puzzle? These seemingly innocuous choices speak to expectations around the place of females in the world and the workforce. Parents are uniquely placed to reward intellectual development over appearance, encourage innovation over replication, independence over compliance. Competence, innovation, independent thinking – these are the building blocks that can propel young girls to have a wide variety of career choices. In my own family experience, I was fortunate to have parents who instilled these values in me, and ultimately led me to an incredibly fulfilling career in Technology.

    This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download your FREE copy and sign up to recieve future digital editions here

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