How the Earlham Institute is showcasing female Stem role models

The Earlham Institute is working hard to break down preconceptions about who can have a Stem career, and Rob Davey and Peter Bickerton took the time to tell Computer Weekly how.

In the lead up to Computer Weekly’s annual women in IT event was international women’s day, and many organisations shared what they are doing to ensure more women are choosing science, technology engineering and maths (Stem) careers.

Among them was the Earlham Institute (formerly the Genomic Analysis Centre) which released a blog post entitled “Five reasons why computing isn’t as scary as you think”.

This was one of many materials released by the Institute designed to dispel the common misconceptions about the types of people who can have Stem careers.

“We want to show to young people that it’s not just blokes who like games who do computing, it’s open to anyone,” says the Institute’s Dr Peter Bickerton.

“In fact in the modern world computing is one of the more useful skills you can have in all fields.”

Bickerton claims there are problems with getting girls to look into Stem type careers, and the problem could be a “disconnect” between what girls think a Stem career is like and what Stem jobs actually involve.

At Earlham a third of their programmers are women, and to address the lack of tech and Stem role models for young girls, the Institute released a series called Women in Computing.

Each of the ladies at Earlham will write a blog post for the Institute’s blog, discussing their roles, what they love about computing and how they got to where they are today, as well as answer vital questions such as “N64 or Playstation?” and “Windows, Mac, or Linux?”.

“We’re trying to show kids that women are doing this,” Bickerton says.

Bickerton believes more role models should visit schools to talk to children as early as possible about technical roles to cement what they may be learning in science, maths or computing classes.

According to Bickerton this will “seed” ideas into children’s head about scientific concepts and possible future careers.

As well as the blog series Bickerton says there are plans in the future for the Institute to create a number of resources for children and adults, including hackathons, workshops and face-to-face training alongside work the Institute will be doing to help create best practices.

The Institute also hopes to have a YouTube channel to give people the inside scoop on what its scientists to from day to day, as well as create a portal of resources people can access.

Bickerton’s colleague Dr Rob Davey told me about his PHD students, all of which are women.

He reiterates that a lack of role models in the Stem industries is part of the reasoning behind the Institute’s blog series.

Davey says: “Those positive female role models and those leaders need to be more prominent and need to be helped to get their message across. It shouldn’t always come from crazy haired white men. Having the right role models is vital.”

Admitting that many things in society are tailored towards men, Davey speculates that social convention is playing its part in causing a disconnect between the reality of Stem industries and how people perceive them.

He proposes the industry works on creating gender neutral job adverts and HR policies to attract and retain people from diverse backgrounds, and since Stem subject are often very flexible environments Davey explains they can cater to people with all different such as childcare commitments.

“One of the often cited reasons is career versus family is a big thing, but it’s ironic because computing and remote working is probably one of the best ways to address a career because you don’t need to be sat in an office.” he says.

Davey also tells me that he believes there needs to be a “dewizardification” process in the Stem industries – showing people that those who code are not magical, and not all of them are maths geniuses who have been coding all their lives.

“We’re just ordinary people who enjoy solving problems with computers,” Davey urges.

Though I can’t get the image of a wizard being stripped of his pointy hat out of my head, I do agree that a lot of people seem to think coders and scientists are so much smarter than them, and that they wouldn’t have a shot at training for the same kind of job.

According to Davey there are many people who avoid going into Stem because they are scared they are not good enough, and he believes we should begin training people from a young age to ensure they are familiar with science and tech, and make sure we are giving them the skills the future will need them to have.

“We actually have a huge problem with data skills in this country and probably globally, there aren’t enough people available to fill these jobs,” Davey says.

“If you get people engaged at a younger age they’ve got more time in their life to learn.”

In September 2014 the UK government made it compulsory for children between the ages of five and 16 to learn about computational thinking and coding concepts as part of the new computing curriculum.

But the curriculum and traditional teaching methods aren’t for everyone, leaving Davey and Bickerton concerned about the kids with huge potential for Stem who are slipping through the gaps.

Davey believes some of these people might be more stimulated by seeing practical examples of what they learn during computing lessons – how do algorithms actually make a computer work, what can data be used for and how does code actually move a robot from  A to B?

By increasing the number of visible female role models available for young people, ensuring kids are engaged with Stem through practical applications of what they are learning and helping people realise what a Stem career involves, Davey and Bickteron hope the number of women choosing Stem careers will increase over time.

But the dial needs to shift, and everyone has to be on board.

“We want to see the situation improve and we don’t want to be the only people to initiate that change.” Davey says.