Maggie Philbin gets behind Network Rail to drive more girls into tech

TeenTech founder tells Computer Weekly how she’s joined forces with Network Rail’s Could IT Be You? competition

TeenTech founder Maggie Philbin (pictured) has teamed up with Network Rail to drive its Could IT Be You? competition for girls.

The competition is open to girls aged between 16 and 18, and asks them to explain how technology can improve their lives and make things better.

The winning girl gets her first-year university fees paid for by Network Rail. Three runners-up receive two weeks of paid work experience and mentoring with the Network Rail IT team.

Talking to Computer Weekly, the BBC Tomorrow’s World presenter said the competition is designed to highlight to girls going off to university that companies such as Network Rail depend heavily on technology.

“The competition is about alerting young women to what’s on offer and to show IT is not just about programming," she said. 

"What Network Rail needs is smart people. A level of tech knowledge is important, but it also needs people that can have business conversations. 

"It doesn’t matter what degree the girl chooses to study – it doesn’t have to be computer science. The message is there are lots of interesting areas in IT, and Network Rail is teaching them what the whole landscape looks like,” she added.

Could IT Be You? was founded by Network Rail CIO Susan Cooklin. According to Philbin, Cooklin is one the few people actually encouraging more women into the IT sector, despite many others claming to be doing so. 

“At Network Rail there is a very high proportion of women on the IT team and that didn’t happen by accident. It came from the top down. The women in that department are doing an important job to encourage other women too, as they are a network of support," she said.

Network Rail conducted a survey of women aged between 16 and 24 in 2013 which showed 64% had not considered a career in IT. Only 28% said they had considered it but were not currently working in the sector.

“You can only do what you’ve seen. To be inspired by it you have to see and know that it is available to you,” said Philbin.

Cooklin said while popular culture has helped create a perception among young women that a career in IT is all about writing code in basement offices, the reality couldn't be further from the truth.

"The winners from last year’s competition all showed a creative mind for solving problems and good communications, and these are the skills that business leaders are after," she said.

“Technology plays a crucial role in moving four million people in Britain by rail, safely and reliably, every day. This competition is a great way to help young women realise what a career in IT is really about and the fantastic career opportunities that a company like Network Rail can offer," she added.

In May, Network Rail was crowned IT Ambassador at the Real IT Awards, held by The Corporate IT Forum, for its Could IT Be You? competition.

Companies call for prime minister’s support with women in Stem

A recent report on females in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) by Women in Stem Education (Wise) showed despite the number of women in engineering doubling since 2012, females still represent less than 10% of the workforce – the lowest figure in Europe.

Wise has set a target of raising this figure to 30%, which to achieve it estimates an additional one million women would be needed across the Stem workforce.

In light of the figures, 20 UK companies have written to the prime minister for support on an industry-led campaign to boost the number of females in Stem roles. The businesses have also committed to a 10-point plan in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering to make a difference in the Stem working environment.

Chair of the Wise campaign Trudy Norris-Grey said the economy requires more women in Stem careers to propel the competitiveness of UK industry on the world stage.

"To make a real difference, we need the commitment of industry at the highest level to ensure the working environment gives women the same opportunities to succeed as their male colleagues. 

“I am delighted 20 top companies have shown leadership in being some of the first to commit to implementing the 10-point plan. We hope that, with the prime minister’s support, many more companies will join them in the future,” she said.

Read more on IT technical skills