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Network Rail CIO Susan Cooklin launched the company’s ‘Could IT be you?’ campaign in 2013 to encourage more women to enter the technology industry.
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The competition invites girls to compete for a £9,000 sponsorship to help the winner through her first year at university, and the chance for paid work experience in the IT industry.
It was first launched to demonstrate the diverse careers women can have in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), industries that Cooklin says require a new kind of people to evolve and cater to the general population’s needs.
Part of the competition requires girls aged between 16 and 18 to submit an essay explaining how technology could improve their life.
“We show what some of those jobs are,” says Cooklin, “and those jobs may not be coding jobs, they might be analyst jobs, media jobs, very creative jobs.
“A lot of them will require very good emotional intelligence, and that is something many women have in spades, so it plays to their strengths.”
Since the introduction of the new computer science curriculum, the importance of computational thinking and coding has been highlighted to children.
But many observers are concerned that the growing need for digital skills means coding is the wrong focus, particularly in view of the fact that most of the jobs today’s younger generation will be doing have not yet been created.
“The people we need, the people who have strong project management skills and strong analyst skills – we want those people in the IT industry,” says Cooklin.
“So, yes, you need developers, you need coders, but there is a global market for those skills. Good behavioural skills and high emotional intelligence are much harder to find and actually a lot of that is what creates successful projects, high-performing teams – it isn’t just about the technical skills.”
Where the influence lies
Research undertaken by Network Rail in 2013 found that 64% of women aged 16 to 24 had never considered a career in IT.
But the IT industry needs skilled workers, and a diverse workforce means greater productivity and innovation, says Cooklin.
“Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, 38% of IT jobs were filled by women; that has now dropped to 16%,” she adds.
“I think diversity is very important in a business – it improves business performance.”
Cooklin highlights the importance of support and role models when young people are deciding what career to choose.
Read more about women in the IT industry
“My school’s ethos was very much ‘You are all highly intelligent women, you can go and do whatever career you want to do’,” says Cooklin. “I think that’s a very affirming, confidence-building environment to be in.
“That is part of the message I try to convey when I talk to young people. It’s ‘Hey, look what’s out there’ – we go through all the jobs you can have in the IT sector, creative and technical.”
Cooklin’s school gave five girls places on its computer science course, sparking her interest in the sector.
“I felt I’ve done pretty well in my career in IT,” she adds. “I have found it enjoyable, interesting, very challenging – and I wanted to spread the word.”
Returning to the industry
According to Network Rail’s research, the IT industry requires 22,500 new entrants each year from the education system.
But only 13% of the students taking IT degrees are female, and 10% of young women say industry stereotypes put them off an IT career.
Businesswoman Martha Lane Fox pointed out that the industry skills gap could benefit from upskilling and employing women who are unemployed or have fallen out of the industry, says Coolkin.
“What I do know is there is a problem across all industries for women in their 30s and quite often there is choice between career and family,” she adds.
“They are weighing up different priorities and what they want to do. I’m not sure it’s specific to technology; I think it’s a broader point across a number of industries. I think it’s a women in careers problem.”