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Network Rail has hosted almost 90 teenage girls to take part in the second phase of its "Could IT Be You?" scheme encouraging girls into Stem careers.
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As part of the day the girls, aged between 16 and 18, were asked to undergo a series of assessments including building mobile applications, matching IT roles to job descriptions, pitching their application ideas and exhibiting teamwork.
The girls were invited to talk to IT people in different roles across the Network Rail organisation and ask questions about their jobs and their career paths, including what qualifications they had and how they got where they are.
From these conversations, the girls are made aware of alternative routes into technology from women who may have “fallen” into IT or from staff members who work in the IT department on roles that do not necessarily require a technical background.
One of the girls involved in the final, 16-year-old Elise Bott, applied for the competition after an advert popped up on her Facebook feed.
Bott pointed out that event if she chose not to pursue an IT job after entering the challenge, digital skills will play an important part in her future.
“I definitely think that no matter what job I do, I’ll do IT in the job. Whether I do specifically IT or not I’m not sure, but I think it’s important to keep your options open,” Bott said.
“IT is everywhere at the moment. At school we’ve been talking about how so many jobs didn’t exist 20 years ago and we just don’t know where the future is going to take us.”
The eventual winners of the "Could IT Be You?" competition will receive a two-week work placement at Network Rail’s IT department and the first year of their university fees paid.
Past winners were invited back to talk to the current cohort of girls about the industry and about their experiences in the competition, acting as Stem role models for their own peer group.
One of last year’s winners, Felicia Chang, found the work experience her cohort spent at Network Rail helped to break down the girl’s preconceived stereotypes of an IT career, and is now hoping to study engineering at University.
“The main thing was seeing the huge range of things they have at Network Rail, and in IT in general, because I think you don’t really see that and people tend to have a quite narrow view of what IT is as sitting at your desk and coding,” Chang said.
“I’ve applied for engineering, I knew I wanted to go in to some kind of Stem-related subject before and I think it really did help me to confirm that and see this is what I wanted to do.”
Susan Cooklin, who was recently promoted from Network Rail’s CIO to be its route services director with an IT remit, set up the project because she felt there was not enough awareness of what a technology career entails.
During a panel allowing the girls to openly ask questions of female role models, Cooklin encouraged the finalists to “go and do anything you want to”.
"I would encourage you to come in to this industry because it's a very exciting industry," Cooklin said.
"As a country we do not had enough technology skills."
Cooklin claimed that, when she first entered the IT industry, she had not considered that a glass ceiling existed, and that sometimes focusing on potential barriers can hold your career back more.
"It helps not to think about it in those ways, I've been most successful career-wise when I've really focused on what I want and gone for it," she said.
The panel also tackled difficult issues such as work-life balance, with many admitting there is no such thing.
"Sometimes things get out of balance, if you're lucky things land at a time when you can go for them," Cooklin said.
"You have to decide how to manage that and sometimes it gets out of balance."
Suzanne Wise, Network Rail’s group general counsel and company secretary for legal services, who was also on the panel, and said the girls should expect to have to be flexible in the future, both with their career and with their family life, because there will be points where one is more important than the other and this might change.
"I would hope the absolute obvious sexism won't be a problem for you. Forget about gender, just do a bloody good job," Wise said.
"You've got to recognise that there are obstacles to overcome in your lives to get to the top, if that's what you're aiming for."