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It’s easy (and unfair) to put the blame on schools - after all until very recently the ICT curriculum was laughably out of date.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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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here