by Jennifer O'Brien

‘Go Girl Go’ event leaders speak out about mission to encourage youth, women in ICT

Aug 23, 2016
Technology Industry

Go Girl Go for IT director, Fi Slaven, said the opportunities associated with a career in ICT are often going unnoticed by today’s youth, particularly girls, who may simply not be exposed to the information.

“It is about highlighting to girls, between 13 and 17, the joys and opportunities of a career in IT because often they don’t know about it, or they are not given the opportunity to know more and decide. So we’re not about making them going into IT. We are giving them the opportunity to choose,” Slaven told CIO Australia.

As such, instead of Go Girl Go being a two-year event, the organisation has changed it into an ongoing program, which offers newsletters, competitions, and various programs.

“We are the only program of its kind in Australia – and we are the biggest this year. We had a goal of 1,500 girls and we had 2,300 register from over 85 schools.”

Asked about the importance of coding – which is a hot topic amongst ICT leaders and educators in nurturing IT skills in girls – Slaven said the group is encouraging ICT across the board to young girls.

“We are big on encouraging them to do any aspect of IT. Coding is fantastic, but there are so many opportunities within IT. It is not just coding. If you don’t think coding is your thing, there are at least 200-300 different types of things you can do in IT and people may not know about them.

“So we are trying to show all of the different aspects of linking with digital technology, project management, business analysis – anything you can think of, and anything you can’t think of because there are jobs that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

“You don’t have to be a coder. You don’t have to be the most methodical person. You can like bright shiny things and still have a fantastic career in IT.”

Certainly, a tough challenge is educating kids, whose main influencers may not be properly educated about IT and its myriad possibilities, she said.

“If your most influencing people – parents, friends of family and teachers – if they don’t know much about IT, or if they’ve had a bad experience with IT, they aren’t going to guide them. As a parent, you might think IT is a service desk and that’s it. So if you don’t know the opportunities, you aren’t going to encourage it.”

She said the stereotypical “geek” is no longer relevant. “You don’t have to be a typical geek. I don’t know what a typical geek looks like – and that’s why so many of the people I know didn’t start in IT. Some did, some started in coding, but I was a critical care nurse and I became CIO of an Australian firm. So nurse to CIO. But what I learned in nursing was how to prioritise, how to work as a team, how to make difficult decisions. Some of those skills are really helpful.”

And while the message is being communicated to girls aged between 13 and 17, Slaven said the good news about ICT needs to be delivered to kids at an even younger age.

“Even in primary school, we have to start having those conversations – and that’s where groups like RoboGals, who go out to primary schools make such a difference as well. We want girls, and guys, to think this is cool and say ‘I can. I may not be the best at math, but I still love being innovative and creative’ – and it can still be the career for you.”

Retention and progression

Meanwhile, the Go Girl Go initiative is just one part of a larger, ongoing campaign to encourage and retain women in ICT, according to Vic ICT for Women Network director, Chris Skipper-Conway.

The Victorian ICT for Women Network is an industry-driven initiative which aims to facilitate entry, retention and progression for women working in ICT.

Skipper-Conway told CIO Australia there are three major areas where the organisation is seeing a drop off of women in ICT.

“Obviously, we are not getting the uptake, which is at the attraction phase. And then we get to the mid-career stage, where people are finding that they aren’t keeping the momentum up and there’s not enough role models, there’s not enough backing of them, and we see a drop off there. The last phase is we aren’t seeing enough women move into those real leadership roles.”

She said with the younger girls part of the problem comes from a lack of awareness at the teacher and educator level.

“At the beginning part of the journey, with the Go Girl journey, when you listen to the teachers talking about what the problems are, they are saying they are finding it really hard to get the girls engaged beyond Years 8 and 9. The teachers are seeing huge drop off, but they are also saying they themselves don’t have the time, nor the digital literacy skills up to date. They are in a quandary and don’t know what to do.”

Role models are so important, she added, particularly being able to see women that are working in brands (like Facebook, Google and Instagram) that are relatable and that don’t encompass the stereotypical geeks of yesteryear – and that working in IT can be cool and innovative.

“We all think of IT being this blokey, geeky, in the basement type industry. But what we can see is that most of us are at the forefront. We are breaking down the doors. We are getting the innovation come through. We are actually making a difference to people’s lives, but actually those messages aren’t going out.”

She said a series of programs are being rolled out at Vic for ICT Women in order to encourage women to self-promote and journey into IT. “We have to educate the women on how to approach the industry. And not to keep apologising, and this is this innate thing that we have within us. The unconscious bias of negative behaviour starts when we are really little.”

Educating girls about the power and possibilities of IT is the first step in enacting real change in the workforce.

“You don’t have to be a coder. There isn’t a job you don’t do where IT isn’t impacting you. So that digital enablement goes across every single role. What we want to do is make sure that young people, and teachers, get an insight into those enterprise skills that are required in every role. And they will continue no matter how much IT changes.”