Want more girls in tech? Show them they can make a difference in the world

Last year I organised a Raspberry Pi workshop and competition for 13-year-old girls at Barnwood Park Arts College in Gloucester.  In discussing the events with their Computer Science teacher, Mr. Holland, I mentioned that the original concept was to get the students to create Pi projects that could help vulnerable people or the social workers and family members who look after them.  I offered him the chance to change that objective and do something that he thought would be more interesting to the girls, but he said, “No, that’s it; making it about helping people will get them interested.”

In the months since the competition, I’ve been trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the conversation that has taken off around gender diversity, and, in our industry, particularly, the question, “how do we get more girls interested in STEM?” and one of the things that is emerging for me is that Mr. Holland’s insight into his own students might well apply more generally: many girls want to do things that help others.

In her Entrepreneur.com article entitled “I Belong Here: 3 Ways to Attract More Women to STEM”, Harvard graduate and Head of Business Operations at biotech firm Illumina Merrilyn Datta notes that many of her female colleagues also working in STEM came to it because they saw a problem they wanted to solve and then that science and technology was the route to solving it.  She also points to research that backs this up: the ICRW has found that an effective STEM education programme encouraged girls to use technology to solve problems in their communities, and that University of Pennsylvania researchers found that “altruism has been highly linked to career choice for women.”

There is further support for the theory that women are attracted to careers that enable them to do good in the numbers of women who start social enterprises: according to a 2015 report by Social Enterprise UK, 40% of social enterprises are led by women – twice as many as run small businesses.

Given that women still comprise the vast majority of people undertaking paid and unpaid caregiving roles, from social workers to full-time mothers and carers of elderly parents, it shouldn’t be news that girls and women care about helping others.  In fact, there is an irony in this situation: one of the major reasons why gender disparity persists (e.g. in the form of lower pay, less access to finance, lower representation in leadership positions in business and politics, lower rates of entrepreneurship) is because the burden of caring falls disproportionately on women.

However, I see an opportunity here.  The fact that many girls and women want to make a positive difference in the lives of others is great news for those of us working in the parts of the tech industry that aim to use technology for good.  From fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity, to improving the lives of the elderly and curing disease, there is no shortage of opportunity to use a STEM career to make a positive difference.

So the next question is, “how can we ensure girls know that there is such opportunity?”  We can bring this out more in the outreach work we’re doing as a sector.  We’ve learned a lot in the last decade about the importance of female role models and having higher numbers of other girls in STEM courses so girls can see others like themselves.  Research from the WISE campaign found that girls need to see the context of STEM in the bigger picture, and be shown its application in real life situations and careers.  When we do these things, we have the perfect opportunity to also bring in messages about the careers in tech that have positive impacts.  We should also run our technology workshops for girls with this in mind: can we make these initiatives more exciting and relevant to girls by setting the focus on issues in their community and in their everyday lives?

…which brings me back to Mr. Holland’s students.  When we caught up after the events, Mr. Holland told me that in response to the challenge we set to create a Raspberry Pi project focused on helping vulnerable people all immediately thought of people in their lives their projects could help (usually grandparents).  That got them excited and opened their eyes to the potential of technology to do good.  After a one-day workshop with Sopra Steria mentors, the girls, in teams of four, set to work building Pi projects ranging from alarms that went off when medication hadn’t been taken on time to alerts sent to caregivers if an elderly person living independently had an accident in his or her home.  Many of the students conducted extra research related to the problem they were trying to solve (for example, dementia), so they could improve their Pi solution.  They did this of their own volition, because having been set a challenge they could personally relate to, they were engaged, curious, motivated.

Ensuring girls know about these opportunities is important, but it isn’t the only thing of course.  We also need to continue to contribute to the efforts being made by businesses in all sectors to make work more attractive to people with caring responsibilities, and to welcome people back to work after a career break (a good example of this is the new Returners’ Hub, which is supported by Sopra Steria and being launched on International Women’s Day).  There is a lot of work to be done to ensure more women have equal access to finance so they can start and scale-up new businesses.  As a society, we can do more to ensure both men and women can participate in caring duties, and that we value these duties more highly.

After this year’s International Women’s Day has come and gone, I hope we’ll ride the wave of momentum and redouble our efforts to make our sector more diverse now and in the future by getting out and talking to girls and young women and inviting them to be a part of the movement towards sustainable development in tech.

For more information about the People Like Me initiative that has emerged from the WISE campaign research mentioned above, and the new Returners’ Hub, go to www.techuk.org/returners on or after 8 March.

What are your thoughts about encouraging more girls into STEM careers? leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Photo used with the permission of Barnwood Park Arts College

Best kept Secret? Not any more!

I wonder if you also dislike the phrase ‘best kept secret’?

Some things should be secret but whenever I’ve heard the phrase ‘best kept secret’ it seems to be about something that doesn’t need to be a secret. Something that should be more widely known – not a secret at all.

Some time ago I was surprised to see a banner with my name on it at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park. The image on it showed another Katherine Johnson, a 98 year old American lady who I came to see was another one of these ‘best kept secrets’. When I went to learn more about the woman who shares my name, I was soon very impressed.  Katherine Johnson, born in segregated West Virginia in 1918,  was one of a few women, handpicked by NASA, who were referred to as ‘Human Computers’, using their exceptional physics and maths skills to work out trajectories of rockets before computers were available to do the work.

When you talk about putting a man in space, you think of the astronauts don’t you? You might know the names of the astronauts like John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, but not the ‘best kept secrets’ like Katherine who enabled them not only to go up, but also come down safely. John Glenn knew who she was though and trusted her so much that when they introduced computers at NASA he got her to manually check the computer numbers before he would take off.

Katherine Johnson was one of those people who was essential to make great things – like the first manned journeys into space – happen. What makes her even more extraordinary is that she lived in a time when being a woman and being black automatically put you to the bottom of the pile. A world of segregation that involved separate doors, bathrooms, shops and so on depending on your colour. Employment decisions were made on totally bizarre grounds of sex and colour, rather than just ability or suitability for the job so being a black woman at that time must have been a double whammy. Katherine Johnson is a bit better known now – the Hidden Figures film out now is based on the book about her and her fellow black, female ‘Human Computers’. As well as the Presidents Medal of Freedom, she also has a building named after her in NASA – the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

People like Katherine are important in changing culture.

In addition to strong policy and laws to support equal rights, we need role models and inspiring stories.

A lot has improved since Katherine Johnson’s time at NASA, and even since I started my own career. Work is fairer and safer, and when I look around me at those leaving education and joining our company, I wonder what it will be like in a further 20 – 30 years’ time.

We are celebrating International Women’s Day in Sopra Steria this year and I’ve found out that we are one of the better organisations in IT as 33% of our staff are women – against a pitiful 17% for the Industry overall. I’d like to think that our recent graduates look back in 30 years’ time and say  “wow only 33%…” and that they don’t talk about ‘best kept secrets’.

But how to make it happen and how to avoid creating more ‘best kept secrets’?

Our success, whether at company, sector or country level is a result of our combined efforts and our talents. By considering the widest possible range of sources, diverse backgrounds, experiences and ideas, we put ourselves one step ahead of those with a less diverse search when looking for the best talent. The challenge to each of us is to widen our horizons to make sure we are not missing ‘best kept secrets’ because we are not looking in the right places.

Where else are you going to look?

On International Women’s Day, who do you consider to be an inspirational woman?  Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Why we need to encourage more women-owned businesses

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting for Women & Enterprise, along with my colleague Graham Roberts. It was exciting and inspiring to be surrounded by so many women leaders and entrepreneurs, even more so because we were brought together to contribute to an important challenge: how to unlock the estimated £10.1bn of economic growth potential in women’s proactive participation in our economy. More on that in a moment. First, a pop quiz:

Name five well-known female entrepreneurs

If you’re like me, you’ll find that difficult. The names we tend to hear about most – Zuckerberg, Musk, Jobs, Gates, Brin, Page – all men. Where are the women?

These men in Tech are inspiring. We admire them. We hold them up, along with sports, movie and rock stars, as aspirational figures in society. And some of us, especially kids and young adults, might be dreaming of becoming like them some day. But what happens if you’re a girl or young woman and you don’t see very many women in business or tech to aspire to? I think it puts you at a disadvantage. People tend to believe they can do things if others like them have already done them.

Of course, women entrepreneurs are out there. Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce Knowles…and in our (Tech) industry Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, Ann Budge and Alison Newell (all of who form part of the Sopra Steria story, by the way). We just tend to hear less about them.

Visibility matters

Just as with the number of women in top executive positions, the number of women-owned businesses is still too small, and those that do exist don’t seem to get the same visibility and attention. I love chocolate and have been a fan of Montezuma brand chocolate for a while. But I didn’t know Montezuma was co-founded by a woman, Helen Patterson, until she got up to speak at the APPG reception about her experience starting the company.

Does it matter that my chocolate is made by a company co-founded by a woman? Not when I’m eating it, no; but in the background, somewhere in my subconscious mind, it does. It contributes to the unconscious ideas and beliefs I have about women. The concept of unconscious bias is an area of study that’s getting a lot of attention, and focus from corporate diversity programmes. It suggests that we all develop beliefs about the world we live in that we may not even be aware of on a conscious level: what certain groups of people are like, what people who look like that are like, what people like us and what people who are not like us are capable of. For example, if someone tells you they have been to see their GP, you are likely to imagine that they saw a man, not a woman, even though there are many women GPs. So knowing that my chocolate comes from a woman-owned business might help me chip away at the unconscious biases I have and build up a picture of women running businesses.

Sopra Steria is an example of a company that has seen real business benefits to increasing the number of women in more senior positions, and improving their visibility. In the last few years, the number of women on our UK board has jumped to just under 40%. At the same time, many of our senior women are getting involved in gender equality initiatives within and outside the company, raising awareness of the issue and seeking to improve it. And we have noticed something occurring simultaneously: more women are coming forward, asking for career advice from the women they can now see at the top, and joining in the conversation about diversity in tech and business; many are saying,

“I have something to offer and I’m ready to do more.”

Women entrepreneurs – and would-be entrepreneurs – would benefit from a similar increase in visibility of role models. Right now in the UK, women start new businesses at half the rate that men do, and the gap widens as businesses grow. There are a lot of reasons for this – unequal access to finance, the persistent cultural expectation that women will continue to bear more caring and domestic responsibilities than men are but two. Giving women more entrepreneurial role models that look like them will not solve everything, but it’s worth including it in the mix of initiatives that we need to start on now.

The UK economy is missing out on over £10bn by not addressing the challenges women face in starting their own businesses, according to a recent study by Facebook. We can’t afford to lose out on that growth. Let’s make sure we’re doing everything we can to inspire, encourage and practically support the women who will create new businesses – as well as the next generation, the girls in school and college. Shouting about the examples of successful women entrepreneurs already out there is a good start.

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me  by email.


The meeting of the APPG for Women & Enterprise took place on 12 September 2016.

Sustainability rolls on at Rio 2016 Olympics?

The Olympics has the accolade of bringing nations and cultures together with a backdrop of sporting disciplines. When my home town, London hosted the summer games in 2012, I wanted to be part of the action and celebration, so I volunteered as a Games Maker in the Athletes’ Village. What a great and successful event it turned out to be and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience to the extent that it spurred me on to volunteer again, this time for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Buildup to the Rio 2016 as we all know from the media had been mixed with questions being posed on whether the country could have spent ten plus billions of US$ on more vital infrastructure and services to its citizens and whether the stated legacy would ever be realised. Facilitating Sustainability (Environment, Workplace, Marketplace and Community) for Sopra Steria in the UK meant that my desire was to find out for myself what the locals thought on the ground.

 Rio de Janeiro was somewhat a familiar territory for me. I had travelled through Brazil, Peru and Bolivia in 2014, spending time in the Amazon rainforest. My role for Sopra Steria Group as the Head of Environmental Sustainability had given that trip an added dimension to learn first-hand and share with my colleagues the vital role the largest rainforest making our planet habitable for us and generations to come. I had made friends with several Cariocas (those born and raised in Rio de Janeiro), so I arranged to live with my Carioca friends, walking, taking buses (an experience for the brave) and metros (lines 1, 2 & 4 – does anyone know where is line 3?), eating feijoada (a hearty stew of black beans, sausages and cuts of pork of varying quality – traditionally veering towards the lower end, with trotters, and ears all going into the mix!) and not forgetting my daily dose of Caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça: sugarcane hard liquor with sugar, lime and ice).

It was great to see the first gold medal for Brazil going to a young lady, Rafaela Silva, from the notorious favela, Cidade de Deus or City of God who had to fight inequality, poverty and racism growing up. Perhaps this achievement was a tiny example of a positive outcome to mitigate human rights campaigners’ concern about the impact of the Games on the Brazilian city’s most vulnerable communities. Driving with my Carioca friends through several favelas (too dangerous to walk they say; a black belt in karate is of no value against a gun!) poverty is there to be seen with limited schools and hospitals. Most Cariocas with whom I mingled, spoke (thank you must go to Google Translate for rescuing me in a number of situations) and drank Caipirinha felt that money could have been more wisely spent on infrastructure (hospital and schools), than on transport – which by the way was a big improvement from two years ago – and to ensure planning continues to realise the long term benefits of sports and stadia without the risk of a repeat of Athens 2004.

To conclude on a positive note, my volunteer experience at the Rio Olympic Arena with gymnastics and trampoline was great and I admired the Brazilian skill of thinking on their feet and coming up with successful solutions to issues that develop due to a lack of process and training! I even managed to secure a new Rio 2016 volunteer shirt and trousers to auction at the Sopra Steria Community Matters week in October that champions community involvement and where all employees are encouraged to get involved in community activities, one day’s paid company time to volunteer, matched funds and enabling grants.

As I finish this blog, I gather the Tokyo games in 2020 are planning to use multi-lingual high tech robots. Does this mean my human volunteer skills (underpinned by Google Translate) have had its day?

What do you think?  Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

The Government workforce of the future

Government needs talented and high performing civil servants. Yet we know that the civil service has longstanding weaknesses in key areas such as finance, commercial and digital – a key finding of our recent Government Digital Trends Survey. And recruitment and retention is challenging when cuts are made to operational costs, wage rises are frozen and posts are cut.

The recently published Civil Service Workforce Plan makes the case for developing professional skills and expertise in government. There is a commitment to open up the civil service, allowing more external recruitment and opportunities for secondments in other sectors. And the benefits of diversity, reducing the dominance of people from a narrow range of socio-economic backgrounds, is also recognised.

The civil service will need to rapidly put these plans into action, especially as it expands its professional skills and expertise to deliver digital projects at scale across Whitehall and the wider public sector.

The civil service needs the right number of people with the right skills in the right place at the right time to deliver short and long-term departmental objectives. What might be the building blocks for this?

First, workforce planning requires alignment of departmental goals and objectives and the human resources available. The workforce implications of any programme need to be considered and planned for from the outset, both in terms of any anticipated staff needs or redeployment and in terms of managing the change so as to minimise disruption and protect capacity and continuity of service.

Second, skills and competencies gaps need to be identified. This means determining the current resources and how they will evolve over time through, for example, turnover. Then comparing this with the kind, number and location of staff needed to meet the strategic objectives of the department. This assessment will determine the existing gaps in terms of numbers and competencies between the current and projected workforce needs.

Third, defining an action plan to address the most critical gaps facing departments so that human resources can support departmental strategies. The more effort expanded in stakeholder engagement during the action planning stage, including consultation with industry, the greater the likelihood of a more coordinated approach to implementation. Depending on the gaps, the action plan may address recruitment, selection, compensation, training/retraining, restructuring, outsourcing, performance management, succession planning, diversity, quality of life, retention, technological enhancements, etc.

Finally, it is also critical – particularly in fast moving sectors like technology and digital – to secure an effective workforce now and in the future. This means identifying emerging skills that can support a high performing civil service, including leveraging technology better.

Are you a civil servant involved in securing an effective workforce now and in the future? Do you think the Civil Service Workforce Plan will lead to a more sophisticated process for workforce planning? Or are you an organisation in the private sector or civil society with an innovative approach to recruiting and retaining staff? Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below, or contact me by email.

Don’t forget the lampposts 

I was recently reviewing a ‘complete’ checklist for testing web applications but at no point in the list was accessibility even mentioned despite being quite thorough in other areas. I would like to try to kid myself that this was just an oversight but it is sadly all too common even though it has been a legal requirement for well over a decade. Of course, a legal requirement where enforcement is practically unheard of is rarely a motivation for an organisation to spend more money on something. That being said, there is strong evidence of the real business benefit to accessible services and information being available to the ten million disabled people in the UK (two million of which have sight problems), but that would be a whole other article.

When testing for accessibility is carried out, it is done so to a set of guidelines. The W3C[1] WAI[2] WCAG 2.0[3] are widely regarded as the guidelines to use, with the middle road AA standard the most sought after level. While the AA standard is quite adequate for the majority (AAA is better and readily achievable with a little extra effort), testing relying solely on the guidelines does not guarantee the final product is accessible and usable. It is entirely possible to have an accessible website that is very difficult to use.

When I was a child, my mother used to paint the front door of our house a bright colour in the belief, unbeknownst to me, that this was necessary for me to be able to find my way home from school. When I asked about our door and this was explained to me I thought that it was a really silly reason and promptly told her, “You just need to count the lampposts”.

This may seem like quite a bizarre anecdote to throw into a web accessibility article. However, my point is that…

just because you expect someone to do something one way does not mean they have not already found their own preferred way to do it.

The same applies to people with disabilities accessing websites and applications. The developers may intend a site/app to be accessed in a specific way but, particularly for non-visual users, the content order and methods they use will be quite different and vary upon personal preference.

Your test team can ensure the site/app designs follow the WAI guidelines, and that your content authors are trained in how to maintain the accessibility standards of your site/app but until you perform real user testing you will not know if you have completely succeeded in your goal.

There is no substitute for having a couple dozen people test your site with various technologies and tell you all the things that annoy them about it, as they will all do so in a slightly different way.

Many of the issues that arise during accessibility testing come from developers not being properly trained in HTML features for accessibility and implementing them incorrectly, which only serves to aggravate the user and drive them away from the site. This has become a particular problem with the increasing reliance on JavaScript without proper alternatives in place and most recently the use of ARIA[4] in HTML 5. ARIA has many potential benefits, particularly for fast navigation using screen readers, but when implemented poorly it can render a site extremely unpleasant to use.

Having worked in accessibility testing for over 13 years and having a lifetime’s experience of visual impairment I can’t help but feel depressed at times at how little regard is given to web accessibility.

The need for systems to be fully accessible will only increase due to the growth in essential services being provided via web applications.

With a little training and care, it is simple to implement accessibility at early development stages, thus providing a superior product that will benefit the customer and users alike (and fewer headaches for myself will be a nice bonus too).

If you have any comments about this topic, please a reply below or contact me by email.

Footnotes

[1] World Wide Web Consortium
[2] Web Accessibility Initiative
[3] Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
[4] Accessible Rich Internet Applications

Digital inclusion in the spotlight

Today (19th May) is the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) and therefore a good reason to celebrate positive developments in this area. Recently there was an announcement from the European Commission that a new directive has been successfully negotiated, which mandates that public sector websites and apps are made more accessible. The above agreement is expected to be approved soon formally by the EU parliament and council, following which the member countries will have 21 months to convert it in to national legislation.

While it remains to be seen how quickly the directive gets converted into legislation, what is evident is that the political will behind this topic is gaining momentum in the European region, which gives reason to rejoice for those rooting for accessibility as a topic. For those more used to traditional references about accessibility, it should be highlighted that it is now considered part of the bigger title of “Digital Inclusion”. This area is, thankfully, getting a lot more attention as part of the drive for a Digital Single Market for the European region. Reduced operational costs, increased user satisfaction and better customer reach are just some of the key benefits that the experts have found this realises – in every sphere of business. It is apparent that the concerned policy makers of the EU commission are convinced about it.

Of course the upcoming referendum on 23rd June might change the course for the UK and, as a result, the relevance of legislation proposed by the EU commission might diminish.

Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, the question we have before us is are we, or are we not, committed to being digitally inclusive?

We perhaps have a bit of soul searching to do as a technical / business community as to why we still have a strong prevalence of poor accessibility in websites. Why does this topic lack a voice in most discussions? Why is it so low down the priority list in every domain? Why does the disappointment for end users with disabilities not bother us? Why have we become comfortable with the inequality in this space?

In my opinion, every website is a service and this side of technology is way behind when it comes to digital inclusion. The designs built, websites developed and tested without much thought or consideration to the full spectrum of users is actually a form of discrimination that we are all a part of – often in complete ignorance, or due to project pressures or a misguided attempt to save costs. Do we realise how many sales will be lost due to inaccessibility, or how difficult it gets to complete online applications for crucial government services, or how companies fail to recruit talented people due to inaccessible job adverts?

Hopefully decisions like the one above will make this a more compelling factor to consider for service providers. Perhaps it is now time for all of us to put our hands up and get behind this topic, make it a priority in our immediate environment, and try to influence the decision makers to think about it. Not because it is a call from the EU, but for our fellow disadvantaged citizens, to reach out to them and give them the full opportunity to be a part of the on-going digital evolution.

There has been a positive update closer to home on this front, with Sopra Steria Recruitment recently announced as the new sponsor of the Business Disability Forum’s Recruitment Service Provider charter. Here’s to such measures which bring hope, good will and inclusivity in the world of technology!