Attracting girls into IT

CAITLIN SYKES
Last updated 14:30 03/04/2014
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Frances Valintine

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Esme Putt's just got back from sailing on the Spirit of Adventure. The opportunity to spend a week building her leadership skills on the decks of the tall ship came via her role as a student representative on her school's board.

The 17-year-old is going into the last year of high school, although she already knocked off a couple of the year 13 subjects last year. In 2014 she's opted for a mix of science and art subjects, and although she's yet to decide exactly where and what she'll study at tertiary level, her end goal is a career in technology.

Snaring bright young things like Putt is a major goal for the IT industry, which is in desperate need of skilled workers.

Technology is currently our third largest export earner, behind dairy and tourism, and it's also New Zealand's fastest growing industry.

But the skills shortage that bites at the ankles of the industry's continued growth is prolonged and severe; a huge list of IT-related jobs - from project managers, to programmers, to engineers - have now made it on to the government's long-term skill shortage list.

Further exacerbating the problem is a scarcity of women joining the sector, with a lack of role models and persistent 'geeky' stereotypes among reasons commonly touted as blockages in the talent pipeline.

It's certainly not because the pay is lousy. Trade Me lists the IT sector as having both the highest median annual pay rate ($95,000) as well as the highest upper range ($192,000). It's just that the people with the necessary skills aren't there.

"The impact of that on us is we can't hire the people we need when we need them," says Ian Clarke, CEO of Fronde.

"That means we can't grow as fast as we'd like or our clients can't get their work done as fast as they'd like."

The Wellington-based IT services firm is a major employer, with around 330 staff and contractors, and difficulty finding skilled staff has been a major problem for more than three years.

Top end skills - solutions architects, for example, and database architects - are particularly hard to come by, Clarke says, "and I suspect it's getting steadily worse".

Ian McCrae, founder and CEO of Orion Health, has been vocal on the skills shortage issue. The health software company employs around 900 people and has four development shops around the world.

McCrae is blunt in his assessment of what the shortage in New Zealand means at his business: "If we can't get the developers here the work will go overseas." 

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Both McCrae and Clarke, like many others in industry, are helping encourage more young people into technology careers through internship programmes and by getting involved in initiatives which promote opportunities in the sector to school children.

Last year, for example, Orion Health, along with HP, distributed hundreds of Raspberry Pi computers to high school students as part of a national programming competition they launched called Codeworx. Among the winning entries was a Rubik's Cube-solving robot.

But both CEOs also say the fix ultimately needs to come from changes at high school level. Digital technologies (as the subject is called in the school system) is perceived as a "bum subject", McCrae says, lumped in with more vocational subjects like metalwork, food tech and textiles.

That means the truly academically gifted kids often steer away from it in favour of subjects such as chemistry, biology and physics. Problem is, there are way more jobs in IT than in all of those sciences put together, McCrae says.

"We're teaching our kids stuff where there are no jobs. We keep talking about Tomorrow's Schools but we need to actually be teaching the subjects of tomorrow."

For McCrae the agenda for change is simple: he'd like to see digital technologies raised to the status of 'the fourth science'.

Professional development for teachers is another major issue, he says, and a reason why education systems around the world struggle with how to teach computer science - a subject area where change is so rapid.

Things are starting to happen in the education system. As McCrae's comments indicate, digital technologies has long been taught as a 'tech' subject, with a focus on teaching kids to be users of technology - learning how to use Word and Excel, for example.

But in recent years the standards used for teaching digital technologies have been rewritten, introducing the discipline of computer science into the senior levels of high schools.

The changes in the school curriculum have been primarily driven by the University of Canterbury, led by Professor Tim Bell, and an organisation with the unwieldy acronym NZACDITT (New Zealand Association for Computing, Digital and Information Technology Teachers).

New achievement standards were introduced at year 11 (old-school fifth form) in 2011 with the next levels (year 12 and 13) introduced respectively in subsequent years. However, only about a third of schools have so far adopted the new standards.

One such school is Botany Downs Secondary College. Liz Douglas worked in IT until switching to teaching six years ago and is now head of digital technologies at the east Auckland school. Her school has not taken "the easy option" by adopting the standards, she says, given they've been rolled out with limited additional professional development and few exemplars, or model answers, offered for the standards the students are trying to achieve.

However, she says the advent of the new standards has made the subject more popular with students - and with good results. Douglas taught digital technologies to 65 year 13 students last year (including the school's dux).

While only around 12 per cent of that number were girls, 20 of her students are going on to further IT or computer science study. "Our learning area is attracting really talented kids now that we wouldn't have got four years ago," she says.

"[The subject has] come a long way and in another five years it will be really, really amazing - if we can get the teachers. Attracting good teachers is a really big issue."

The Ministry of Education says due to NCEA changes it's not yet possible to get a clear picture of trends in student numbers overall in the subject, but data shows a static number entering NCEA level 1 over the past three years (see table).

Douglas' passion for her subject and teaching have no doubt been crucial in getting more students amped about it at her school, but it takes dedication."I spend a lot of time outside of work hours just keeping up with skills."

And Douglas has recent industry experience; how, she ponders, will the overall teaching population, which is ageing, stay relevant? Education Ministry-funded professional development addresses digital technology in two ways, according to Pauline Barnes, the ministry's group manager of curriculum, teaching and learning.

The first is in the use of digital technology across all learning areas, and all externally contracted professional development funded by the ministry must include outcomes directly related to expanding the use of digital technology.

"In addition to this, there is specific professional development provision available for teachers of digital technology at school, cluster and national levels," she says.

But is it enough? Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye says professional development is among the issues being looked at by the 21st Century Learning Reference Group - a group comprising tech industry and education leaders she set up last year to provide advice to government on the future of learning in schools as it relates to technology and digital literacy.

"The amount of time that young people now spend online in terms of their learning is significant and if we don't have a group of teachers who can be there in that space then there's an amount of engagement that won't happen," Kaye says.

Like many in industry, she also agrees connectivity is key. The Government has invested $700 million in upgrading all schools to ultra-fast broadband connections and developing a managed network, called Network For Learning, offering fast and uncapped data to schools and a portal to deliver relevant online resources, among other benefits.

Further developing how careers information is served up in schools could also help, Kaye says. Video content delivered via that managed network, for example, showing what's actually involved in various jobs could help break down stereotypes that still seem to linger about tech careers.

Most spoken to for this story agreed we've moved on from the stereotype that tech industry types are a bunch of socially inept blokes toiling alone for long hours in front of screens in dark rooms, stopping only to refuel on pizza.

But related misconceptions remain, they say - primarily that working in technology involves only sitting in front of a computer programming, and that not a lot of communication or team skills are required. And such persistent stereotypes may be part of the reason why so many girls are still not considering technology careers.

"The biggest challenge we have - and I think it sounds quite strange and controversial - is mums," says Frances Valintine, the technology education pioneer behind Media Design School and the MindLab.

"If you are a 40-something mum, you went through high school and did shorthand and typing and the view was still very traditional, and focused on secretarial, nursing and teaching-type roles. So when people talk about technology they associate it with geeky boy roles - sitting at a computer all day and having no interaction with people.

"Their view is very tainted... and not necessarily based on a true knowledge of the opportunities that are out there."

That knowledge gap isn't helped, she says, by the low profile of technology companies and role models in New Zealand and a negative association in many parents' minds that an interest in computing involves too much screen time, as opposed to it offering an opportunity to tinker, discover and be entrepreneurial.

Changing those attitudes will take time, Valintine says. "Piece by piece, it's your advocates and champions that go out and create more advocates and champions. But it's such a slow process, especially in a little island nation with not a lot of role models. I don't know that we're ambitious enough about what we could do with technology."

Valintine cites the Geek Girls movement as one initiative doing good work. The movement aims to encourage and support women working in technology, offering opportunities to network and share experiences with peers.

Amber Craig, a 28-year-old senior technology architect at Westpac, helps organise Geek Girl dinners in Wellington around three times a year. "The thing I love about it is it's not really formal. It's not exclusive of men, but it's about getting women together and helping them build connections with other awesome women," Craig says.

Craig's dad worked in IT and she grew up building computers and tinkering with electronics. IT studies at school bored her; she ended up coaching her sixth form classmates on the subject when her knowledge quickly outstripped that of her teacher.

She got her first job in the IT industry aged 18 and has quickly progressed a corporate career, she says, thanks to a passion for technology, a keenness to learn and help from mentors.

One observation Craig makes is it can be hard convincing women to speak at events like the Geek Girl dinners, particularly as their popularity and audience numbers increase.

"I had great supporters and mentors - both men and women - and I didn't really realise that it didn't always happen that way for everyone," she says.

"It can be difficult to get speakers because it's hard to convince some women that they are awesome. We really need to have those third parties and mentors to say 'you're awesome'; to push people past their limits."

Change at the coalface may be slow. Seventeen-year-old Putt says she doesn't know any other young women her age with aspirations similar to her own, and exposure to role models at home (her mother is a prominent technology industry commentator) may have factored into her own thinking.

But there's optimism nonetheless. "Technology is everywhere now," she says. "And if people start using it for good it can be a really useful tool. I think it's going to create a huge impact - hopefully positive."   

- Unlimited

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