'It’s not just coding for 10 hours a day. It’s helping people'

Girls in Tech eye wider role for women in the workplace, creating a dedicated platform for budding entrepreneurs

Coral Movasseli, managing director of Girls in Tech’s Irish arm.

Coral Movasseli, managing director of Girls in Tech’s Irish arm.

 

It is rare that you find an organisation that is hoping, one day, to put itself out of existence. But that is what Girls in Tech is hoping to do.

“The one of the major differentiating factor between Girls in Tech and most other organisations is that for us, our eventual goal is to not exist. We want there to be a day where there doesn’t need to be a Girls in Tech,” says Coral Movasseli, managing director of the Irish chapter of the global organisation.

“If you think about it, there isn’t a Boys in Tech organisation. If there is, I don’t know about it. I have no idea. But that’s not prevalent. That’s not pervasive. So we want to not exist.”

Encouraging more women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths is a question that has been asked many times in recent years, as the tech industry battles with its diversity issues.

A dedicated platform for women in tech and entrepreneurs, Girls in Tech as an organisation was started in San Francisco in 2007 by Adriana Gascoigne. Initially, it was a way for Gascoigne to network with other women in technology; it expanded into something much bigger, trying to educate, engage and empower women.

It is now a support network to help women advance their careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths, known colloquially as Stem.

The organisation has a number of programmes that it uses to achieve these goals, such as its mentorship programmes, its stepping up programmes and the hacking for humanity programme. And it’s not all about gender.

“We are a platform for women, but we’re about promoting equality, about human rights about access. And what that means is it trickles down to how we operate and how we think of our programme, in the sense that we don’t exclude men from the conversation,” she explains.

“We are pragmatic and create programmes instead of focusing on the problems. And we make sure that we are constantly engaged in all the different inequities that cross linked with gender, for example, race, disability, economic status . . . We consider all of those things as well.”

For Movasseli, a career in Stem wasn’t her first choice. She studied politics and political science at university before making her way into tech, but her love of tech was a lifelong thing.

“I didn’t go into the sciences despite having graduated with honours from my high school, having As in calculus. I thought of engineering, as men wearing hard hats. I thought of it as civil engineering. I didn’t really have the breadth to know what my options were,” she explains. “In my family, no one was an engineer. My dad was in the healthcare business. My mom was a homemaker, I didn’t really have that level of understanding of what my options were.”

She describes it as being part of “a leaky pipeline of women”.

“The women were gamers, were already coding at a young age, were already exposed to technology, and had the grades to get into engineering, science. But they didn’t go into Stem, because they didn’t see themselves there. They didn’t know what the opportunities were,” she says.

She says there is a misunderstanding about the nature of jobs in the Stem fields. “It’s not just coding for 10 hours a day. It’s helping people who have disabilities navigate the city. It’s making an impact in people’s everyday lives. Technology is a tool. And what you’re studying in Stem is a tool.”

Had she had that information, she says, things would have been different, although she doesn’t regret her time studying comparative politics as it gave her a “different lens” that she wouldn’t trade.

Originally from Canada, Movasseli moved to Ireland three years ago with her husband, who was from Tipperary. After a stint in the corporate world, she had returned to tech and created a digital start-up, and felt she wanted to give something back to the tech community.

“I wanted to create something where it not just had my fingerprints on it, but that was very personal to me,” she says.

“Having completed the circle by coming back into tech, I was very aware and also mature enough to understand the opportunities that were lost for me, when I could reach them, especially in terms of entering tech and sciences at an earlier age.”

Hackathon And so the Dublin branch of Girls in Tech was created in March 2017. The group has a board comprising 10 members – male and female – each bringing their own expertise to the organisation.

Movasseli created the stepping-up programme specifically for Dublin, with the input of Girls in Tech members to make sure, she says, that “it fits like a glove” for what Ireland needed. It took six months to design it in full.

The Girls in Tech mentorship programme, meanwhile, has helped about 1,000 women. Its hackathon programme marked its first event in May, with 100 people taking part.

“Less than half had ever been exposed to a hackathon or anything similar,” says Movaseli. “I don’t like developing products or programmes and just releasing it on the market for the sake of it. I like to really understand what is needed, where are the gaps? There are a lot of gaps. But now we’re at the stage of prioritising what makes sense for Girls in Tech, how can we make a really big impact for women here in Ireland?”

You can’t be what you can’t see, or so the saying goes. And with a generation of women growing up with technology at their fingertips, the stakes are higher than ever.

“If you don’t understand the opportunities that lay ahead of you, and what you can make out of it, then you’re going to be limited in the choices,” says Movaseli.

“That we still find it today, that is disheartening for me, despite the fact that there has been generations coming up behind me who are given a massive, greater exposure to stem, to technology, and they’re also interacting with technology more.”

It’s not just tech that has a diversity issue though. In an example of shifting attitudes in academia, Trinity College recently called on staff and students to nominate female scholars to be memorialised in a bust in its Long Room. Famous for its collection of rare library books, the room is also home to 40 marble sculptures, all men. The woman nominated will be the first female scholar to join them.

For businesses, it is a no brainer: diversity has been proven to improve outcomes for companies. The more diverse your workforce, the better able you are to serve your clients.

According to research from Morgan Stanley, employing more women brings a stock market boost with annual returns for businesses that employ the highest proportion of women almost 3 percentage points above those for the least diverse firms over the past eight years.

In the face of such evidence, there has been some movement in this area. The percentage of women on company boards globally has doubled since the start of the decade.

But in Europe, the number of women at management level falls behind target. In Ireland, a Government-backed target is aiming for there to be no all-male boards among listed companies by the end of 2019 – a target that we are likely not to meet, with at least a dozen companies trading on the Euronext Dublin set to fall short.

According to Gary Kennedy, who co-chairs the Balance for Better Business group with Nephin Energy chairwoman Bríd Horan, as of August, there were still 15 companies with no female directors.

Slow process In Ireland, the conversation on diversity in Stem is continuing. There is an effort in some quarters to engage children with science and maths at an earlier age, showing them the fun side of these areas and how the endeavours here translate in the real world into significant social and economic change, not just tireless efforts in the labs.

Projects such as the Explorium in Sandyford, Co Dublin, is tasked with igniting an interest in science in children from a young age, covering everything from gravity and electricity to wind tunnels and perspective.

It’s the kind of place where you learn without even realising it. Paint spinners in the makers lab teach children about centrifugal force, while in a special room, a Tesla Coil demonstrates how lightning can be created.

On rare occasions, a brave soul steps into the room wearing a suit that functions as a faraday cage to demonstrate how electricity can be harnessed and bounced off a human being – once the correct safety equipment is employed, of course.

The junior section, meanwhile, uses art, music and games to teach younger children a little about science, with interactive floors and aquariums,

More than 120,000 people have passed through its doors so far, with the centre opening at the start of 2019.

The project appointed an advisory panel earlier this year, which includes sports scientist Prof Niall Moyna, sport psychologist Dr Olivia Hurley, former Ireland rugby international Jamie Heaslip, and aeronautical engineer Dr Norah Patten.

Speaking at that announcement, head of science and sport at Explorium, Mark Langtry, said the organisation has an important role in society.

“It is, I think, a very important and huge responsibility that we have, that we’re delighted Ireland finally has somewhere that ignites curiosity, that allows kids to build things, do things and find out what they really enjoy,” he said.

“And that’s how and why I think Explorium has such an important role in Irish society to create an education revolution to inspire these future thinkers and doers.

“Because these will get us out of the mess that we put ourselves in. Our future scientists and engineers are sitting right now looking at me, and these people will probably save us from impending doom.”