woman coding on laptop, Code First Girls

“The boys don’t talk to me”

woman coding on laptop, Code First Girls

There once was a little girl who learned to code. She read her father’s textbooks, and was delighted when the computer greeted her with “Hello, World!”.

At primary school, when the first computer arrived, she was given a day off from lessons to show her teachers how to use it. Then she went to high school. The only children who used computers were boys. They played fantasy role-play games and didn’t speak to her. The girls gathered in groups and talked about boys. She didn’t belong in the boys’ world, and she didn’t fit in with the girls. So she stopped learning to code.

Tech Women UK (2015) reports that girls often succumb to ‘strong social pressures … to veer away from technology as a subject choice despite them being interested in science and maths’, citing ‘fear of being seen as a social outsider’ as a key factor.

At school, she loved science, and excelled in maths. At sixteen, she transferred to a new school. The other pupils had taken GCSE maths a year early. For the first time she found herself behind and struggling. She asked for help, then she asked again. “Don’t feel bad,” her teacher told her. “Everyone has a limit in maths, and girls do reach it earlier than boys. Have you thought about taking a different subject?” She was seventeen and listened to him. She gave up maths.

Despite girls achieving overall ‘higher or equal’ results than boys in STEM subjects at GCSE (age 16), the proportion of girls taking these subjects at A-level (age 18) drops off sharply, with only 39% of mathematics and just 21% of physics entrants being female. By the time they reach university, only around 15% of students taking computer science or engineering and technology courses are women (WISE UK Statistics, 2014).

The Women In Tech Report (PwC, 2017) points out that girls are less likely to be encouraged to take technology-related subjects when receiving careers advice, or to have a career in technology recommended to them, and suggests that the stereotype of such career paths being ‘for boys only’ is pervasive amongst teachers.

Three decades, three degrees, two children, and several unsatisfying false-start-careers later, she wondered, could I? She read conflicting opinions about which language, framework, and paradigm to learn. She followed some online tutorials. It was difficult and confusing. She persevered. She looked at photographs from tech conferences: rooms full of men. She wondered what it would be like to walk into those rooms, and if the men in them would speak to her. She decided to do it anyway.

Tech Women UK refers to an ‘androcentric working environment’ in the technology sector, identifying a culture of ‘brogrammers’ as a key factor in why women frequently feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in these industries. Currently, just 19% of jobs in the technology sector in the UK are held by women, with the lowest proportions being in engineering and operations roles (Tech Talent Charter Diversity Report 2020).

She found other women who were doing the same thing. Then she met some who had already done it. Finally, she saw people who looked like her, whose lives looked like her life, writing code and working in technology. She learned to make a website. She learned to build a server. She held her breath and applied for a job. On her first day she sat in a room full of men. “Hello,” she said. “I work here. I’m a software engineer.” They smiled back: “Hello. Welcome.”

Several sources point to the importance of visible female role models in encouraging women into the technology sector. As the Tech Women UK report puts it: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. Mentoring programmes and encouraging companies to provide options for flexible working are also identified as significant elements in increasing gender diversity in the tech workplace (e.g. Tech Talent Charter, 2020).

My story is an individual one, but it is by no means unique. On a daily basis I encounter women who were discouraged and excluded from pursuing careers in STEM generally, and technology in particular, from an early age. Some of these women found the means, as I did, to return to these interests later in life. Many more did not. I’m telling my story and I’m reaching out to them to say: it is possible, it can be done, there is a place for us.

Linzi CarlinAbout the author

Linzi Carlin learned to code in her forties. She had no technical background beyond some early experiments with Basic. She has combined parenting and home-schooling two children – one with additional needs – during lockdown, with learning the skills needed to find a job in the industry. Linzi was helped along the way by Sky via its Get Into Tech programme, and Infinity Works’ marvellous Academy. Linzi is now work as an Associate Consultant at Infinity Works. She is a software engineer.

 


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