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Girls4tech: making a difference one girl at a time

30 May 2018

Girls4tech: making a difference one girl at a time

 
Siobhan Ford,
Senior Brand Manager,
Vocalink Mastercard

Growing up, I never considered myself to be particularly strong in the areas of Science, Technology, Maths or Engineering (STEM). They were not subjects that were promoted heavily at my all-girls school nestled in the Dublin suburbs. Despite a tech boom during the Celtic Tiger years, the world of STEM was still relatively unexplored at second-level (I vaguely remember the chapter ‘Microsoft, Dell and Intel come to Ireland’ in third year geography class, but that’s about it!). Girls who did wish to pursue more technical subjects had the option to attend classes in the neighbouring boys school down the road and outside of normal school hours. They opted to sit STEM exams in addition to their standard subjects. For most of us, the mere thought of having to walk across the boys’ central courtyard and into an all-male class was far too intimidating. And so, from an early age, the world of STEM always seemed a little bit beyond us ‘ladies’- an optional extra that would be a ‘nice to have’ but never conveyed as subjects that would prove critical to the future of work.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this was only 12 years ago. The age of Apple was in full swing, my evenings were consumed by MSN messenger, we played our lives out on social media – every break up, every make up, every girls night documented on MySpace, Bebo, Facebook. You name it, we were posting on it. We were digital natives. Technology was a constant in our day-to-day lives. I don’t remember not having a computer. And yet, the exciting future that technology presented was not something we thought about. It seems strange now, but I never made the link - the link between the extra work my classmates were undertaking on their Saturday mornings, trying to squeeze a two-year STEM curriculum into one, and the impact that each of them would have on the future of technology and society. These were the minds that would design the future and their inventions would transform how people around the world engage with each other, and the Dublin job landscape.

Lucky for me, I had a second chance to engage with the world of STEM after graduating. I joined the world of work at a time when ‘digital strategies’ were on the tip of every CEO’s tongue. The smartphone in everyone’s pocket was rapidly transforming how we all got stuff done. Everyone was trying to figure out how tech could propel their business forward and deliver on customer expectations via real-time digital environments– and for that they needed STEM experts. With businesses up against fierce competition from start-ups, my STEM graduate colleagues found themselves not only in demand, but often with the loudest voice in the room. They had the expertise, the vision and the practical recommendations for how organisations would need transform to thrive in the digital era.

It was glaringly obvious that ‘non-techies’ would struggle to reach their full potential in this new work environment – like a new age form of Darwinism. Despite not having studied STEM at university, I knew that I would need to adapt and evolve my tech knowledge in order to remain relevant to employers. In the first three years of my working life I realised how technology could, and would transform business models. By exposing myself to the tech industry, digital teams, business transformation programmes and customer experience projects, I’ve learned about STEM by osmosis.  

As it stands, 80% of jobs created in the next decade will require science and maths skills. Alarmingly, only 30% of these future roles are set to be filled by females. And with students, particularly girls, showing a declining level of interest in STEM, we have a big challenge on our hands to figure out a) why girls of today feel that STEM isn’t for them and b) what can be done to make the subject areas more attractive to female students. This year marks 10 years since I left high school. In those ten years, my hometown has transformed into a tech hub for Europe. It is those students who embraced STEM subjects that are now thriving with these Dublin tech giants. And I can’t help but wonder: how many girls of my generation missed out on STEM careers due to subjects not being accessible to them? I have no doubt that a general understanding of these subjects during my school years would have been beneficial to me at the start my career journey – it would have widened my horizons. That’s why I was so excited to travel to Harrogate last week and take part in the Mastercard Girls4tech programme, in partnership with Rossett Acre Primary School.

Girls4tech is Mastercard’s signature education programme, aimed at giving girls between the ages of 9 - 11, the opportunity to experience a fin-tech environment and understand the career opportunities open to them where previous gender inequalities have been prevalent. It’s all about opening doors that previously seemed closed – music to my ears! The programme connects the foundations of Mastercard’s business to STEM principles and shows girls that it takes all kinds of interests and skills to pursue a career in STEM. And so it took 1 primary school, 2 teachers, 22 students, 6 STEM stations and 20 Vocalink volunteers to launch the Girls4tech programme in Harrogate. It was, quite simply, awesome.

For an afternoon, we watched young minds tackle challenges related to fraud detection, data privacy, encryption, building faster networks, near field communications, biometrics, algorithms, big data, cryptology and digital innovation. It was great to see the girls begin to consider some of the career opportunities open to them - just by being the curious, enthusiastic and energetic young ladies that they are! By the end of the session we had  9-year olds writing binary code, detecting fraud and sharing their thoughts on what they saw as the next frontier in biometric payments – some interesting food for thought to take back to our product innovation team in London!

There were girls in the room who very much reminded me of myself at that age – creative, linguistic, pragmatic, excitable – and there was something quite powerful in being able to show them ways in which they could apply their skills to STEM subjects – especially when there are industries who will be crying out for people just like them in a few years’ time.

The Girls4tech programme was established with one simple goal in mind – to spark curiosity amongst girls about a much broader range of exciting career opportunities available today made possible by the advances in payments technology. And thanks to all our colleagues who volunteer, we’re delivering on our ambition to reach 200,000 girls by 2020. It was only last Wednesday that our colleague and Girls4tech founder, Susan Warner, accepted the Global Citizenship award at the PRWeek Global Awards 2018 – an honour which has given us all even more momentum to hit our 2020 target and make a difference, one girl at a time.

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