Editor's Choice

Nick Denbow's European Report: Women with STEM and computing skills take the lead

October 2016 Editor's Choice News

STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) training is receiving a lot of current attention: but this is not something that is new. As the Founder of Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1959 Sir Winston visited the building site that was to grow into the college and said, “We must depend on our brains for survival”. He believed the country needed more trained scientists and technologists if the UK was to remain a world leader.

Churchill College was established as a male only college, following the traditions at Cambridge. However, it was the first male Cambridge College to reverse this, and in 1969 decided to admit women as undergraduates alongside the men, becoming co-educational. The current Master, Dame Athene Donald, a professor of Experimental Physics, is leading the college to do more and more to attract young women to study the STEM subjects.

There is a lot written in the popular press about how female students should be encouraged to maintain an interest in STEM subjects through all their school years, and into college, but maybe written without any factual support. Back in 1984, 37% of computer scientists graduating in the USA were women: currently the proportion is down at only 17%. In terms of job prospects, opportunities in technology products that require computer science knowledge are expected to create 1,4 million new jobs in the USA by 2020. Their forecast is that ten times as many male US graduates as female US graduates will fill these jobs - and that new world immigrants, from India, China etc, will fill 67%.

Girls who code

In the USA, Reshma Saujani has created a non-profit business called GirlsWhoCode.com, which provides after school teaching clubs for girls aged 13-17, to encourage, explain and explore coding in a friendly environment, for 2 hours

a week. Then there are ‘Summer Immersion’ teaching and project programmes for older girls, full time five days a week, for seven weeks, organised with the help of local software companies. All courses are free, the tutors and facilities being provided by the major national and local companies who support the scheme: companies like Adobe, AT&T, Amazon, Facebook, GE, Infosys, News Corp, Microsoft, Pixar, Twitter and Verizon. After only three years 8 000 students have joined the clubs, and 1500 have attended a summer programme.

In her presentations about the programmes, Saujani stresses that a major part of the teaching is involved with overcoming the modern social stereotyping of the girls, who as teenagers are accustomed to getting everything right first time – which is not how coding knowledge is built!

Apart from the founding companies AT&T, Adobe and Prudential Foundation, who helped with the initial finance for GirlsWhoCode, twenty other companies have pledged to offer paid internships and other employment opportunities to Alumni of the schemes.

High-tech start-ups

It appears there is another barrier to women, once they have developed their favourite STEM ideas: the venture capitalists, bankers and angel investors are typically men, and often do not understand the potential of the concepts described by female founded start-ups, which sometimes are aimed specifically at other women. Women know more about the Web and consumer markets: Reshma Saujani notes that women are responsible for 85% of all online consumer purchases and on average have six times greater social media usage than men. The result is that only 7% of venture capitalist investments support female entrepreneurs: but the Harvard Business Review reports that start-ups that include a woman as a founder typically perform 63% better than their all-male counterparts.

There is a South African example: a 2014 start-up called SweepSouth.com was founded by Dr Aisha Pandor, in partnership with her husband. Dr Pandor has a PhD in Human Genetics from the University of Cape Town, plus a business management diploma.

Nick Denbow
Nick Denbow

The SweepSouth website service allows homeowners to find and book a reliable and trustworthy cleaner to help with specified household chores. It allows the client to list the jobs required, and then calculates the time and costs: the work is guaranteed by SweepSouth, and charged by the hour. Their contract cleaners operate during the daytime, seven days per week, and currently cover the metropolitan areas of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Centurion.

About Nick

Nick Denbow spent thirty years as a UK-based process instrumentation marketing manager, and then changed sides – becoming a freelance editor and starting Processingtalk.com. Avoiding retirement, he published the INSIDER automation newsletter for 5 years, and then acted as their European correspondent. He is now a freelance Automation and Control reporter and newsletter publisher, with a blog on www.nickdenbow.com

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