The future of the UK's tech industry is in the hands of thirteen-year-old girls

If Martha Lane Fox is right, and the UK needs to fill one million technology jobs by 2020, then we're going to have to change the perception of technology careers among teenage girls.

“I’d rather be a binman” she says - her face shows that she’s telling the truth. Pausing for dramatic emphasis she explains that she really would prefer to be arm-deep in household refuse than spend her life in an IT department. The teenage girls around her nod affirmatively.

“Technologists don’t wash,” quips one.

“And they wear awful clothes,” adds another.

“It’s not a career for women,” says the first with definitive finality.

When the garbage dump holds greater allure for our youngsters than Silicon Roundabout, we’ve got problems.

The most pressing problem of all is technology skills shortage. Martha Lane Fox states the need to fill one million technology jobs by 2020, the year when this thirteen-year-old girl is due to enter the workforce.

These teenagers are avid consumers of technology. They are almost all devoted to the cult of Apple with a fundamentalism that would shame the average San Franciscan. There’s nothing remotely luddite about them - they possess the same urges to own gadgets as their male classmates and yet they cannot see themselves involved in the creation of technology.

It’s as if an entire generation of girls has internalized the “airhead” culture from 1990s teen comedies, which is entirely possible given that most of these girls are heavy users of Netflix. The data shows that girls use their devices more intensely than their male classmates: 45 per cent of girls say they use a smartphone every day, compared with 35 per cent of boys. Young girls are also now bigger users of social networks: 53 per cent of all mobile social gamers are now female.

The myth that girls are “not interested in technology” is simply untrue. However, the sad reality is that they see themselves as spectators rather than participants.

It’s easy (and unfair) to put the blame on schools - after all until very recently the ICT curriculum was laughably out of date. It emphasized topics such as the need to format floppy disks, and how to make basic spreadsheets. Universally derided, the subject had become a joke: one frustrated teacher quipped that the initials stood for “I Can Type”.

But the subject has had a reboot. The old ICT is the new Computer Science. Where the former taught secretarial skills, its replacement speaks of eternal truths of computing. But despite this revitalized and newly relevant course, are girls getting into it? Unfortunately not - if anything the higher standards and focus on genuine engineering skills has the potential to alienate even greater numbers of girls.

Last year only 245 girls took A-level computing compared with 5,153 who took Spanish. Over the last 17 years there has been an 83 per cent drop in the number of girls studying A-Level computing in England. It’s as if the internet has ushered-in a new era of technical illiteracy.

It’s clear that the reasons girls choose not to pursue courses and careers in technology has nothing to do with the subject’s content, and much more to do with their image of someone who works in technology being a pizza-guzzling nerd who can't get a girlfriend. The only way to prevent Britain's technology workforce from becoming a priesthood is to address these attitudes.

We spent 2 years in inner city schools understanding why girls would not want to choose careers in technology. Most girls will claim that the subject is not “creative” - by this they usually mean that they imagine that all technologists spend their days holled-up in dungeon like offices staring blankly into cyberspace before heading home for a League of Legends all-nighter.

The quickest way to overcome these attitudes is to actually challenge them directly. Well-functioning tech teams are often collaborative - dare I say even “chatty”. They are places where solutions arise by discussion and engagement with problems.

The way to dissuade girls of incorrect notions is by directly exposing them to technology teams. Little Miss Geek is tackling this problem head on - we run after-school tech clubs in inner city schools which focus on inspirational ways that girls can change the world through technology. The curriculum is fun and uses exciting technologies such as Sphero, Raspberry Pis and Kano kits. We have increased the number of girls taking GCSE Computing by 52 per cent in one of our inner city London schools.

Our programme ended with a trip to one of our sponsors: Bank of America where the girls were able to participate in technical planning and experience a day on the floor of an actual technology department. The girls were surprised it looked nothing like the basement office from Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd.

This gender gap is a problem that begins with teenage girls - it’s also one that we can fix with the help of those same teenagers.

We’ve failed to communicate the values of technology. We’ve allowed the image of people who work in technology to be defined by tabloids and TV-shows. We must show our girls that technologists are neither boffins nor outcasts just as real doctors and lawyers are not as glamorous as the ones presented on TV.

We must convince our girls that technology is a creative and vibrant field – a world of ideas which can truly change the world. The way to do that is to directly confront them with the act of transformation and show them what’s possible.

@belindaparmar is the founder of @ladygeek and the CEO of the social enterprise Little Miss Geek

A Lady Geek tech club in action. Photo: Lady Geek on Flickr
Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle