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Cyber Girls First volunteers encourage girls to think high-tech

More than 80 schoolgirls spent a day learning about computer hackers and rocket science – Cyber Girls First hopes they will become the next generation of technologists

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Patrick B introduced himself: “I am an intelligence officer, or a spy.” The room was buzzing as Patrick explained how his love of solving problems led him to a career in the electronic intelligence-gathering agency, GCHQ, first as an intelligence analyst, and then as cyber security specialist.

Patrick was speaking to an audience of 80 girls from schools around London, hosted at the offices of law firm Fieldfisher. The schoolgirls, aged between 11 and 14, were taking part in Cyber Girls First, an initiative founded and run by volunteers to show girls that being male or geeky is not a prerequisite to succeeding in technology.

The issue is a pressing one in an industry that is struggling to hire a more diverse workforce. Women make up only one in five of the people working in information technology. The most optimistic estimates for women working in cyber security put the proportion of women with at least some responsibility for cyber security at one in four.

The problem starts at an early age. When schoolgirls are choosing their GCSE options, computer science rarely makes the short list. Cyber Girls First aims to change that.

At the event, the girls heard about 3D printing, driverless cars and how computers could spot lung cancer in scans more effectively and more quickly than people.

Women have played a huge role in the history of computing. Dame Stephanie Shirley founded her own IT company, Xansa, to give roles to women, after escaping as a child from Nazi Germany. Kathleen Booth was the academic who wrote the first book about programming in Assembly language.

The girls heard about 3D printing, driverless cars and how computers could spot lung cancer in scans more effectively and more quickly than people

More recently, Lindsey Scott, the model who became the first African American to sign an exclusive modelling contract with Calvin Klein, is also an expert programmer. In between modelling assignments, Scott has built up a career in programming mobile phone apps.

“You can be the new Lindsey Scott. Find something you like and add tech,” Patrick told the group.

The girls used their mobile phones to find out what they could about a guy who drives an orange Lamborghini in Cheltenham and likes to park in the mayor’s parking space.

“If you are a hacker, this is called reconnaissance,” he said. “If you want to target a CEO, you learn who they are and find out personal details.”

For Patrick, the event was also a chance to win over some potential recruits. GCHQ is not short of candidates, but it struggles to attract as many women as it would like. Good cyber security teams need a mix of skills – people who are good at communicating to keep managers and technical people informed, and people with emotional intelligence.

The intelligence agency runs a series of courses for young people, known as Cyber First, with activities including internet investigations and 3D printing. Children can join a week-long course at a university to learn about cyber security.

“We feed you and teach you how to sort your phones out, how to sort out your iPads. We pay for everything. It’s all completely free,” Patrick told the girls.

For older children, the agency offers an apprenticeship and a bursary for university. “Come to Cheltenham and we will train you to be spies. No student debt.”

The cyber detective

Jon Kidd told the girls that his interest in technology and web design led him to assist the Metropolitan Police in fighting cyber crime. He works with young people who are interested in computers but might be at risk of straying over the line into illegal computer hacking, channelling their interests in security.

He told the story of a youngster who hacked into his teacher’s account and sent a message to the parents asking them not to bring their children into school the next day. The boy could have been prosecuted under the Computer Misuse Act, but he was lucky. “We realised his potential, we realised his talent, and we wanted to find him something useful to do,” said Kidd.

The girls competed in teams in a quiz on computer crime, provoking intense discussion as they debated whether downloading hacking tools, even if they didn’t use them, could land them in jail. 

Kidd’s presentation made an impression on Tallulah, a pupil at Grey Court School, Richmond. “It was really interesting because I learned a lot about hacking. Before, I didn’t really understand that, and I wasn’t really interested in that,” she said. “But when everyone was talking about this, it made me like much more interested in it, and I definitely want to look into it more and research about it.”

Tallulah plans to take computer science as one of her options. For now, she is torn between a career in investigating cyber crime or one in architecture. “Both my parents are computer scientists and really like coding stuff. At home they talk about it. I was very interested in it and will definitely pursue it [technology] as a career,” she said.

Yes, it is rocket science

Samantha Graham is an engineer at European AstroTech, a company that specialises in spacecraft propulsion and provides services for rocket launches.

Graham learned to code using a Raspberry Pi and still uses a Raspberry Pi for testing rocket engines or monitoring high-altitude balloons.

She told the girls about Margaret Hamilton, the woman who wrote the software for the Apollo moon landings for a computer that had only 72kB of memory – astonishingly small compared with the memory in today’s mobile phones.

“Rockets are quite an easy win with the girls,” she told Computer Weekly. “Space and explosions always kind of catch their eye.”

Graham often finds herself the only woman in a team preparing a rocket for take-off, although an increasing number of women are now working in the space industry.

“What I’ve found working in this industry is it really doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman,” she said. “It’s really kind of just about getting more women involved in the industry and having role models where they can see themselves in that position.”

The growth of Cyber Girls First

Pat Ryan, a former business consultant and member of IT livery company the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, started Cyber Girls First about five years ago.

The idea came about by accident. Ryan had volunteered to raise funds for the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, which was short of money at the time.

She sat in on a computing demonstration for children at the museum and noticed that the boys took over the computers while the girls sat in the corner, left out. “We needed to do something about this,” she said.

Many people were dismissive about the idea of putting on computing events just for girls, but she found support in Robert Dowell, an education guide at the museum, and Martin King, now chief technology officer (CTO) of the Football Pools in Liverpool. Both were willing to give up their free time to organise events and run the Cyber Girls First website.

Ryan set up a bank account, put some of her own money in it and organised the first event at Bletchley Park, home of the UK’s code-breaking activities during the Second World War. She used her networking skills to rally support for the project from MPs, IT professionals and businesses. Other events followed.

After hearing Ryan speak at a dinner, a JP Morgan executive offered to fund Cyber Girls First events at its Bournemouth office. The law firm Fieldfisher is now supporting regular events in London, and 10 Downing Street has held two events – its CTO, Larissa Chase, has become a regular speaker.

Since it started, more than 2,200 schoolgirls have attended Cyber Girls First events

Ryan has plans to extend Cyber Girls First events to the north of England next year, through a partnership with Pennine Kids and local businesses in Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

Since it started, more than 2,200 schoolgirls have attended Cyber Girls First events, and after five years the initiative is beginning to have an impact.

“The events change the way girls think about computer science. Most arrive thinking it’s about sitting in front of a screen writing code, but they come away realising there is much more to it,” said Ryan.

Many have gone on to study computer science at GCSE, and are now beginning to sign up for computer science at university. Some have applied to become apprentices at GCHQ.

Why companies support Cyber Girls First

Cyber Girls First relies on people volunteering their spare time to run events, and on businesses to host and fund events and donate items for goody bags for the girls.

London law firm Fieldfisher agreed to support Cyber Girls First after one of its partners heard about the initiative. Jay Wetterau, head of inclusiveness and diversity at the law firm, said he jumped at the opportunity.

“I think a lot of people, when they think of lawyers, picture people in a court room, and actually we have tonnes of people who work here in privacy, technology, life sciences and cyber security,” he said. “So I wanted to find ways to help students expand their horizons.”

Fieldfisher has funded five Cyber Girls First events in London and one in Manchester since it became involved 18 months ago. The London building is a hit with the girls, with a huge balcony that overlooks the city – perfect for taking selfies.

Some of the law firm’s female partners come along to talk to the girls in small groups, including IT director Mable Harvey, and Vivien Davis, a partner, who speaks Arabic.

“A lot of the girls who come here speak Arabic as well, so they will reach out to her and she’ll share with them what she knows. It gives them such a leg up,” said Wetterau.

JP Morgan has been supporting Cyber Girls First events since 2017, when it invited 40 girls to learn about working in technology.

Jason Valet, an IT professional who came along to the London event, said the girls go away understanding that they could have a career in technology.

“Ask them at the beginning who is going to have a future in IT or who is going to take it up as one of their GCSEs, and not many hands go up, but ask them afterward, and they are like, ‘yes, yes’,” he said.

Valet knows from his own experience that it makes a huge difference to have diverse teams. “I have worked in teams that were all male, and it gets a bit macho – you know they are in a room, and they are talking for the sake of bravado – but as soon as you get some women in there, it gives you a different perspective,” he said. “ You get a much better outcome, 100%.”

It’s not just male and female, he said. The best teams have people from different nationalities. Valet has worked with teams comprising people from Nigeria, Latvia, America and the UK. “We are much better at coming up with ideas outside the norm than we would have done if we were just a male team.”

Another important part of Cyber Girls First is helping girls to become more aware of the potential risks they face from using the internet and mobile phones.

At one event, for example, a cyber security expert showed the girls how easy it was to crack passwords. One girl used the name of her dog, and was shocked that the expert managed to crack it in less than a second.

Ryan makes sure the girls who attend receive a cover for their web cams in their goody bags. “I explain to them that someone could be watching them, and that frightens them. But that is the idea – you have to be frightened. I think you have to treat technology carefully.”

However, there is still more work to be done. Cyber Girls First has no funds of its own, and relies entirely on support from businesses and other organisations to fund and hold events.

Fired up by technology

Trish Foreman, who teaches computing at The Cooper’s Company and Colburn School in Upminster, has brought girls along to Cyber Girls First every year since it started.

“The girls today are so fired up. They want to enter the competitions they have been hearing about and they are trying to do it now online. But I said let’s wait until we get back to school to organise it,” she told Computer Weekly.

Ten years ago, more than half the girls at the school were studying information technology for A-level. The numbers have dropped since exam boards replaced IT with computer science – which is more focused on programming skills – but initiatives such as Cyber Girls First are helping to redress the balance.

“It just reinforces that it is okay to do this, it’s not just a boy thing,” she said. “They realise that they can have a go without the boys jumping in and trying to take over.”

Last year, for instance, girls from the schools were able to attend a week-long course at Canterbury University organised by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre.

“That was amazing. They really enjoyed it. They have been working as a team and entering competitions. They are in Year 9 now, and it looks like some of them are going to choose CGSE computer science,” she said.

Gillian Hesse teaches computer science at Grey Court School, a comprehensive school near Richmond. The school has a strong computer science department, with two female teachers but, said Hesse, has struggled to attract girls to the subject.

Hesse is a programmer, but went on to apply her programming skills to complete a doctorate in human vision. If there is one thing she hopes her students will come away with it is the sense that you can work in technology and still get to do what you like.

“Computational medicine, computational linguistics, computational archaeology – these all exist,” she said. “If you can program, it opens up a huge world of what you can do.”

Roundtables for conversation

The Cyber Girls First volunteers introduced roundtables early on in the development of Cyber Girls First. They allow small groups of girls to meet and to talk to people working in a wide range of technology roles and to ask them questions.

They realise that there is no one route into technology, that everyone has come through different routes. Some people go to university, others start apprenticeships, others go straight into technology after school.

“The big reason I do this is because girls need advertising, boys don’t need advertising,” said Ryan. Once they go back to school, the girls speak to other girls about their experience, and the word spreads.

The girls got to chat in small groups with Mabel Harvey, the head of IT at FieldFisher, Nina Fasel, an ethical hacker from Vindler who flew in for the event from Germany, and other IT professionals, both male and female, from companies including Avaya and Oracle.

One regular is Kate McClorey, managing director for technology and transformation at recruitment company Search Consultancy, which has hosted a number of events.

“If we can now start working with girls at school age to encourage them to look at STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects as core subjects for the future, then we can help improve the throughput of women into these jobs. There just aren't enough at the moment, and we really need them,” she said.

For the IT professionals who took part in roundtables, it is not always easy to pitch at the right level. Julian Guppy, CTO and founder of Onboard, travelled from Cornwall to attend the event. “It was a learning curve,” he said. “I used words and themes they didn’t connect with, like ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘fintech’, and completely missed them as most of them had not heard of these phrases. I will change my approach next time,” he said. “They asked me if I knew Alan Sugar.”

Sparking excitement about tech

The meeting started off quietly, but by the end of the afternoon the girls were clearly excited.

Emily, a pupil at The Cooper’s Company and Colburn School, said the day had helped her realise that if she puts in the effort she can do whatever she wanted.

“Ever since a very young age, I have always liked to break stuff down and build it back together. So I find there are all these different jobs in IT, and how I can understand how to do them,” she said.

Emily said she would like to develop computer games, or perhaps become an internet influencer and inspire other people.

Connie, a fellow pupil, said she had learned how many different sides computing had, ranging from art, like website design, to programming, like rocket science. “There is likely to be one thing that you will enjoy because there are so many possibilities to choose from,” she said.

Connie had some words to say for people who think boys are better at technology: “If girls put their heart into something, they are going to be the best.”

The girls went away with goody bags containing cameras, web cam covers, notebooks, water bottles and pens, donated by Fieldfisher and other companies.

For Football Pools’ King, the highlight of these events is hearing the girls talk to each other about what they have learned from the day. “For me, it’s about hearing what the girls are saying when they are walking out, such as, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could do that with technology’,” he said.

Sponsors

  • JP Morgan
  • Search Consultancy
  • Fieldfisher
  • European AstroTech
  • IAAC
  • Cisco
  • The Cyber Fish
  • Digital Skills Solutions
  • The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists

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