Why don’t more girls go into technology careers? The organisers behind a new Irish schools programme called the Ada Lovelace Initiative (ALI) believe one reason may well be that girls don’t see the people who are in such careers as being much like them.
"Instead, they think they're like the people in the Big Bang Theory," says Cathal Grogan, managing director of Verify Recruitment, who came up with the idea for the initiative.
And when girls were asked what they thought people did when they went into a tech career, they most often associated such jobs with people sitting passively in front of a computer screen and typing.
“That’s their idea of what happens. They don’t want to just sit around all day. They have these preconceived notions, but the initiative changes their perspective on who is involved in technology, when kids were exposed to it in a much more accessible way.”
The initiative – piloted last May and going into full drive this autumn – aims to bring women in all aspects of technology into the secondary school classrooms, to talk about themselves and their work.
Only one in four young women says they are interested in technology careers, says Ciara McGarry, acting deputy principal and science teacher at St Dominic’s College, Cabra.
McGarry, who helped develop the initiative, thinks a big contributor is the fact that computer science classes aren’t on the curriculum.
“Because it isn’t on the curriculum, young women don’t see much computer programming and don’t see an obvious pathway into a career,” she says. So bringing in a person to talk about their own experience opens up new possibilities for students.
"They've really responded to it," she says. "From the first visit, it was clear students weren't aware of how much computer programming lies behind things they all use, like apps and Facebook and WhatsApp. They were really interested."
The programme is aimed at fourth year students, since they are between the Junior and Leaving Certificates, and will have to make study choices by the end of fourth year, McGarry says.
Grogan, who has a background in technology, says his own two daughters were part inspiration for the initiative. Despite being good at science and maths subjects, they didn’t seem very interested in a tech-focused career, and he started to wonder why.
At around the same time, the issue of the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education and careers was beginning to draw a lot of public interest, and he decided to do something.
A visit to the Computer Museum at
inspired him to visit their website, where he read about Ada Lovelace, the early 19th century computing pioneer. The daughter of poet
, Lovelace was a maths and analytics prodigy, and helped
with his computer forerunner, the analytical engine.
She is sometimes called the founder of scientific computing, and in recognition of her achievement, a computing language is named after her.
“I thought she sounded really interesting and inspiring, given the difficulties she faced in following her chosen path,” says Grogan, who gave her name to the initiative that began to take shape.
The Ada Lovelace Initiative, he says, “is wrapped around storytelling.” Women who go speak to a class don’t come in to talk specifically about their work, but “to tell her story”. The template the initiative suggests is for participants to think about a first person narrative; for example, “When I was your age, I . . . ”
“We’re trying to present the person rather than the career, so students see a role model that was just like them.”
Amanda Hay, a software engineer with TripAdvisor who participated in the trial programme in May, came to classes and discussed all sorts of things with students, he says. She noted that a software engineer didn't just do coding, but also considered aspects such as design, including, for example, thinking how a thumbs-up sign might look.
Looking for mistakes
She also talked about testing programmes, explaining that this required looking for mistakes in other people’s work.
“One student said she’d love a job looking for other people’s mistakes,” laughs Grogan. “But the most important thing was they saw Amanda was someone like them. We have no prerequisites for the programme. We just want girls to think, ‘Maybe this is something I could do’.”
For the pilot, Hay visited Mount Carmel Secondary School on Bolton Street in Dublin. The visit was a great success, says David Coleman, transition year coordinator at the school.
“We think it opens up the students’ eyes. Many of them come from backgrounds where they might not see someone who’s an engineer within their own families,” he says. “And boys often feel naturally that they can do things in technology. Girls are often not as comfortable. The girls need to know the tech jobs out there are for them, that they can do it.”
Since the May pilot – for which “TripAdvisor have been hugely helpful” – an initial 20 schools in seven counties have signed up for the launch of the initiative in September, and the organisers are hoping for more.
They are also seeking to add more role model women in technology jobs who are interested in talking to students. Visiting a school takes about an hour and involves the role model telling students a bit about Ada Lovelace and then their own personal story.
And Grogan says he now thinks the role models should also be talking to boys’ classes.
“We think this is a good initiative for all students. It’s just as important for male students to see a woman role model in technology.”
Schools and women in STEM careers interested in learning more about the programme can get further details at http://www.verifyrecruitment.com/ali
Natural choice: computer science degree
For TripAdvisor software engineer Amanda Hay (24), a college degree in computer science was a natural choice.
“My family is very science- and technology-oriented,” the American says, with a brother in a tech career and a mathematician mother who studied maths and physics at university.
Hay took a joint degree in philosophy as well, noting that many computer scientists also do a second subject. She grew up in Hong Kong, where she says it was more common to see girls doing science and technology in school.
After finishing her degrees at Tufts University in the US, she went to work for TripAdvisor, and after a year, moved to the company’s Dublin office.
But Hay knows that her own background is unusual and that girls generally do not think of going into technology. When she heard about the Ada Lovelace Initiative, she was immediately interested. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was really fun,” she says.
About half the class she visited seemed engaged, with the other half not quite sure what to make of her, but she expected that. “I remember what it was like to be 15 and have someone come in to talk to my class,” she laughs.
When she asked the girls what came to mind when they thought of computer programmers, “They said ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’, but really, it’s a lot more than that.”
She says she took a “big picture” approach in talking about her job and the varied possibilities of a computing career and the kinds of technologies the girls themselves use, such as apps and Facebook, rather than go into the more abstract details of her job, which she felt would be less accessible.
“I could tell there were some girls who were very interested. The key is the find the few who might start to think about this as a future job,” she says. “My goal was to show them that there are these jobs out there.”
Hay is already signed up to return to classrooms in the autumn, when the initiative rolls out more widely across the country.