Women working with computer for design and coding program

Article by Elizabeth Tweedale, CEO and Founder, Cypher

Think Different. A great Apple ad campaign from 1997. The fact that we all think differently is at the very root of why girls – and everyone for that matter – should be encouraged to get into coding.

The reason we should encourage girls into coding is not just about feminism or equality, it’s not just about fairness or a ‘level playing field’, it’s not just about opening up glass ceilings and filling quotas. It’s far more important than that. It’s about solving problems for the future of our world.

Talking about the ‘female’ mind or ‘male’ mind is fraught with difficulty – so I’m not suggesting these are two different opposing gender-based options, but broadly painting a picture of a rich spectrum of the diversity of thought amongst individuals. A bit like we use ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ ways of thinking. It’s the combination of this diversity, facilitated through inclusivity, that leads to the ability to solve problems in new and unpredictable ways.

As a teacher I have observed children approaching tasks in different ways which reveal different mindsets. Early on in my experience of teaching children to learn to code, I taught a class of boys a lesson about making a space invaders game. The lesson taught concepts about coding and computational thinking. The boys picked up the concepts fast, were highly competitive, designed efficient invader killing programs and were totally goal orientated. Soon after I had the opportunity to teach the same lesson to a group of girls. I was fascinated by the alternative way of working that they displayed. This group took twice as long to complete the task. However, they were collaborative, discussed different options, considered the design and colour scheme of the game and even considered the wellbeing of the aliens – providing ways for them to get food. They completed the task differently.

This got me thinking about the value of different approaches to problem solving. And also the very evident fact that there are less women working in technology than men. Women make up just 17%  of IT specialists in the UK. While the concept of computer science was invented by a woman, once it was turned into an academic subject to fit into an educational system designed largely around how boys learn, it lost it’s connection with the ‘poetic science’ displayed by Ada Lovelace’s mind. Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician working with Charles Babbage in around 1843, first developed the idea that computers had the capability to go beyond mere number-crunching.

The benefit of learning computational thinking, the core concepts behind developing code and algorithms, is that it gives students the tools to both think around problems and promotes the idea that there are many ways to solve a problem. Thinking computationally isn’t just about the questions you answer, but about the questions you ask. What I might call a male approach might be to set the question ‘What is 2×2?’ We can all do that – 4. But what if we ask the question, ‘How do you make 4?’ Immediately the mind expands and starts thinking of different angles. How about  8÷2, 1+1+1+1, 22, 60÷15, √16……there are so many ways. With different people working together – different genders, different heritages, different social backgrounds – the approaches are instantly diversified. And women tend to bring together a range of approaches rather than stick to a straightforward path.

In my own career I have an example where my approach, bringing together two different principles, led to a new and exciting solution. With my background in both computer science and architecture, I have developed the code to create a space planning app to improve office space usage. It was also the result of a great partnership with my husband, Bruce. By putting together two types of algorithms, a particle based system and a graphical based system, I was able to create algorithms to solve the space problems faster. Bruce, interestingly, says that’s something he would never have done and credits my ‘female mind’ as being able to think in a more lateral, pick’n’mix way. When it came to getting the algorithms patented however, he was the one to drive that process through and get it registered. Teamwork.

So how have we managed to put off so many girls going into computer science? Just 9% of female graduates in 2018 studied a core Stem subject – science, technology, engineering and maths. Some girls are keen on computing and I’m the last one to stereotype anyone into a particular role. I was both the president of the Computer Science club at high school – and the Cheerleaders. I love gaming. But I love other things too. I’m a Mom, and I like being in charge of how my home is, what the kids do and getting to know their teachers and the other school Moms. It’s my choice to take on that role in our marriage (as well as being CTO of our company). We just don’t make computer science sound that attractive to most girls. What’s the point? How does it relate to me? I read an Instagram post only yesterday from a woman who’d just got a house to herself after being brought up with three brothers – doesn’t this just paint a picture of what life can be like for some girls?

“There has always been noise, there has always been things everywhere that were the possessions of others, that weren’t for me, and I wasn’t to touch…amps, wires, guitars, drum kits, video games and televisions that I was never interested in but wasn’t ever allowed to use anyway – the year PlayStation came out was really shit, just saying.”

It’s not encouraging!

Things have to change. Everyone needs to get to understand technology better. The 98% of people who don’t want to be computer programmers have to have an elevated level of understanding of technology to be able to function in today’s and especially tomorrow’s world. An understanding of how computing works, what computational thinking is, how algorithms work – takes away the fear of technology. Technophobia is only overcome when you have a go, you discover it’s not so clever, it’s just about giving a machine a few instructions. And wow, those instructions can make a real difference.

By broadening the understanding of technology we can also help increase the numbers of women working in and understanding technology. When I spoke at a conference for International Women’s Day last year I was impressed by the recognition of the breadth of what ‘women in tech’ means. The marketing team was proud to stand up and say, “We are women in tech’. No, they aren’t labelled CTO but they do run the Facebook campaigns and understand the algorithms, they do run the website, they do analyse the data from all the technological interactions with customers.

How do we encourage girls into coding and STEM? By creating environments that welcome women. By appreciating that not everyone thinks the same and that there are many ways to peel an orange. By showing that they can tap into their creativity when learning computational thinking. That it can help their creativity. I set up my company, Cypher, to inspire children to learn the language of the future – code. From the outset, I wanted to make it as girl friendly as possible. The whole premise of Cypher is that we teach through creative themes – we want to catch a kid’s imagination and curiosity with subjects that mean something to them – whatever their gender. Our themes range from exploring marine ecology and conservation, to a virtual world tour meeting robots and building pyramids, to making magic, to fashion shows and composing music. And whatever the theme, we connect it to technology, learning to code and developing computational thinking. STEM by stealth if you like. The greater the range of children we can excite about coding now, the greater the diversity of thinking and problem solving that will be in the next generation of leaders, designers, thinkers – bringing new and surprising solutions to the problems we face in the future. As we say at Cypher, getting the next generation future ready.

Elizabeth Tweedale, CEO CypherAbout the author

Elizabeth Tweedale is a computer scientist, has a master’s degree in architecture, has written six books for children explaining different coding languages and is the Founder and CEO of Cypher – an edtech startup inspiring children aged 5 to 12+ to learn and apply the language of coding through creative and interactive camps and clubs. She’s also a mother of three young digital natives.

While working for Foster & Partners’ Specialist Modelling Group in 2013, she spotted the educational potential of coding. She explains: “My team used computer coding to design buildings, including the Apple Campus and the Gherkin. I saw many colleagues teaching themselves how to code and hitting stumbling blocks because they didn’t have a basic understanding of computational thinking and had never learned how easily code fits together.”

Her experience sparked a question. Shouldn’t we be teaching our young children how to code? And so she set up a company to do just that.


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