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It’s easy (and unfair) to put the blame on schools - after all until very recently the ICT curriculum was laughably out of date.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
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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.