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February 17, 2016updated 31 Aug 2016 5:22pm

Minecraft, coding & role models: How to get girls excited about STEM

C-level Briefing: Joining Accenture & Stemettes at the Royal Institution for the London Girls in STEM day, CBR spoke to Accenture MD Emma McGuigan about making STEM exciting for young girls.

By Ellie Burns

Boys like blue and girls like pink. Boys like science and girls like English. These are outdated stereotypes, no? Not according to 51% of teachers and 43% of parents who believe that STEM subjects are for boys only. This perception seems to be rubbing off on the girls themselves, with 47% of young girls believing that boys are better matched to STEM subjects, and a further 60% thinking that maths and science is too hard to learn.

While many have faced these kinds of stereotypes growing up – for me it was playing football with the boys – it was never a problem for Emma McGuigan, Accenture Technology MD, when she was growing up.

"When I was a kid, my parents, particularly with my father, there was never a sense of boys and girls doing things differently. So much so, it never really entered my conscious at all. My father had this really strong sense that his daughters can do whatever they want to do and they are the equal of anybody – and not just a man – but equal to anybody."

"What I really hold strongly from my upbringing is that sense of you can do whatever you want to do – you just have to put your mind to it, you have to concentrate, and you have to see it though. You don’t give up because you’ve hit a hurdle. "

That childhood message, instilled by her parents, has carried Emma through a successful career in technology, starting with an engineering degree at Edinburgh University through to her current role as MD of Accenture Technology.

However, the reality is that many girls are not as lucky to have an upbringing like Emma’s, as the aforementioned figures prove, with Emma herself observing that gender stereotypes have only got worse, not better, in the last 30 years.

Emma believes young girls need inspiration and encouragement to instil the belief that they can do anything, especially in STEM, with parents, schools and industry needing to unite to tackle this issue as early as possible.

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The aim for Emma is to inspire and, if the enthusiastic sounds of 300 girls in the room next door is anything to go by, it seems to be working.

In the next room there are young girls aged 11-15 doing all manner of STEM related activities – some are wielding JavaScript as weapons in a hackathon, others are engrossed in a workshop on virtual reality, and more still are immersed in a Minecraft ‘hack jam’. Sounds fun, right? And that, Emma told me, is the whole point of Accenture’s Girls in STEM event, held in partnership with the Stemettes.

"Today is all about trying to drive application and it’s about trying to bring [STEM] to life with a little bit of excitement – of course you could teach application skills in a really dull way but we want to make it exciting, so it’s quite cool that these kids outside the room are building rolled up pieces of newspaper into sticks, building solid structures and making homes from them. Suddenly they have learnt about structure building and that’s all about engineering."

This excitement about STEM is not just limited to London, as Accenture and Stemettes are hosting the Girls in STEM day nationwide – in all, 1,800 girls from across the UK will be able to code, attend workshops and listen to leading women in tech in Dublin, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester and London.

Accenture Girls in STEM

When looking at the aforementioned stat of 43% of parents believing STEM subjects are for boys only, it is only too easy to mutter ‘blame the parents’, an easy out for almost any issue when talking about the choices of 11-15 year olds. When it comes to education, teachers are also firmly targeted with the crosshairs of blame – but, Emma argues, you must look at what these two sets of people, teachers and parents, have to keep up with.

Many teachers and parents grew up in an analogue world, and both are being asked to keep up, understand, and educate on subjects which are foreign to them – subjects which are changing and evolving at such a rapid pace.

Emma said: "You can only inform against the things you know about. When you look at the tech sector in particular, it’s moving so fast. If I look at Accenture, we have roles which didn’t exist 5 years ago. In 5 years time there will be another set of roles which didn’t exist today. How can we expect someone outside the tech sector to try and describe the job opportunities when we in the tech sector can’t agree what the job opportunities are?’

Emma highlights coding as a skill – just as important as reading and writing – where so much is expected by teachers and parents after the subject landed on the UK curriculum. However, Emma does not see ‘how we can expect teachers to be able to stay abreast of the application of coding in the professional world."

Emma argues that it is in this area, application, where public sector, private sector, big organisations, and small organisations need to band together as there is an obligation ‘to connect with schools to help demonstrate the applicability of those skills.’

Emma, and Accenture, have certainly responded to that obligation, with the Girls in STEM event all about, as Emma says, ‘showing them things they can touch and feel, that they can be excited about, that they can try out and think maybe this is quite exciting. It’s about creating those nuggets of inspiration to try and create something else."

Accenture Girls in STEM

In addition to workshops and hackathons, the Girls in STEM event also gives the girls in attendance a chance to hear from senior, experienced women in the industry – answering the call of many for more female role models in tech. However, there has been some senior female execs shunning the ‘role model’ title – arguing that they are not a ‘woman in tech’ they are just ‘in tech’. Emma, labelled a woman in tech role model by many, modestly says that she is proud to encourage more women into the industry, but that role models can be found everywhere, inspiring no matter age or gender.

"I’m no different to most people who don’t want to be called a role model as it creates a sense of responsibility in addition to what you really do. It makes you feel that you have somehow put yourself on a pedestal – and I think most people don’t think they are on a pedestal.

"If I can tell a story about my experience, or use my role to sponsor events like this and make it happen, in order to open the door to more people – well if that means I get labelled as a role model then I’ll live with that. I have stopped worrying about the label role model and I actually like to think about the whole thing very differently, as we are all role models to somebody.

"Everyone is a role model to somebody and if we can take the pressure off the description then we can be much more comfortable with it. We also need young people being role models to each other."

We will avoid the pedestal-putting title of ‘role model’, but Emma has been a vocal advisor in the event’s co-organiser, Stemettes. Calling herself a ‘godmother Stemette’, the relationship between the Stemettes and Accenture was a perfect match – Emma and Head Stemette Anne-Marie Imafidon both like getting things done and share an ambition and passion in getting girls into STEM.

"There are many great organisations out there, I think I found in Stemettes what I was looking for in terms of inspiration, with the particular age groups of girls that we were trying to target and it has just worked."

As one of the first corporate sponsors of Stemettes, the two organisations have worked together on a number of shared events and panels – pushing the shared vision of getting more girls into STEM. And getting more girls into STEM is an issue which speaks directly to the tech sector’s lack of diversity and, looking at the bigger picture, the digital skills gap casting a very worrying shadow across the industry.

"The current numbers are that in 2020 there will be 1 million unfilled jobs in the tech sector, which is a huge issue, and we need the whole population to fill that. If that’s the opportunity we should be encouraging all our young people to go and grab it, so we have to look therefore of a whole different ways to do that. Organisations like ours have a responsibility. It’s about getting 11 year olds, it’s about getting 7 year olds interested and not thinking it’s a boys job or a girls job – it’s just a job and it’s a great job."

Accenture Girls in STEM

So the question is, are events like the Girls in STEM event successful. Are girls getting inspired? In a word, yes.

"Let me tell you a story from last year." Emma said. "At the end of the event last year we asked the girls to fill in some feedback to tell us what they thought and the one that sticks with me is this little girl who was 12 wrote in her feedback ‘I always thought I would do something in English, even though I’m not very good at it, until today and now I am thinking completely differently.’"

That’s one girl who was inspired – a girl who perhaps would have followed that English path if it were not for the Girls in STEM event.

To fill the digital skills gap, to answer the calls for more diversity in the industry, then the industry as a whole must come together to inspire and encourage girls – and boys – into a career in tech.

Because, with a career in tech, ‘What is there not to like?’ asks Emma.

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