Code First Girls has a simple goal – we want to get more women into tech and entrepreneurship. We initially started out life as a project run by the founders of Entrepreneur First – a leading pre-seed accelerator programme which supports engineers and computer scientists to build world-class tech companies from scratch – who noticed that they weren’t receiving many applications from women for their programmes. And of those who did apply, even fewer had a tech background. So they created a few ‘introduction to web development’ courses and Code First: Girls grew from there. In September 2014, Code First: Girls became independent as a community interest company and I came aboard in January 2015.

A digital hobby

For me, the opportunity to lead Code First: Girls was the perfect combination of working in the technology sector and helping to nurture others. From childhood, I was just a kid who liked building things. I always say it was a left brain, right brain argument, and I have never seen technology and creativity as being mutually exclusive. My first undergraduate studies were in manufacturing engineering – where I first learnt to code – and then I did a further degree in footwear design and development. What I found was that, in reality, I’d more or less done the first degree twice. Whether you are creating aeroplane propellers or shoes you go through more or less the same process in terms of research and development, prototyping, manufacturing and point of sale. Through my studies I realised what was really interesting for me was the thinking behind how we create those products and services, so I moved into research – first working on consumer goods and then on professional and financial services. But I kept my ‘digital hobbies’ with me throughout my career.

What we do

At Code First Girls, we have three main buckets of activity. Firstly, we run training courses which include free coding courses for young women – mainly 18-23 year-olds – across the UK at universities or hosted at companies. Over the last three years we have taught around 2500 women to code for free, which amounts to around £1.5 million worth of free education. We also run paid courses for men and women at companies, as well as for working women of all ages who want to understand more about technology and the impact it has on their respective industries. The female professionals’ courses have been particularly popular, as a lot of professional women are realising that their industries have been revolutionised by tech and digital – communications, marketing and public relations being great examples, let alone healthcare and other industries.

Secondly we have developed a community of 4,000+ women who are interested in tech, coding and entrepreneurship, and we run a series of – usually free – career and personal development events for them. And lastly we have an advisory practice where we help companies to look at their tech talent  recruitment and retention processes, and help them understand how they could be updated to help them recruit and retain tech talent more easily and from a more diverse background.

A way to go before gender parity

If you look at the numbers of women in tech and telecoms, we’re still only looking at about 17% of the workforce being women. There is clearly a way to go before we reach gender parity. Surprisingly, the first person credited as being a ‘computer programmer’ was a woman (Ada Lovelace), and the early computer industry was more female dominated. For example, Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, who is one of my personal inspirations, began writing code in the 1950s and set up her own software development company back when everyone was doing hardware. Her company, F.I.Group, ended up coding some ground breaking projects including the black box for Concorde, using a workforce of primarily women working flexibly around their family life.

The gender split has changed to become more male over the years as the industry has become more high profile. But we are now slowly seeing more women enter tech industries and a lot of companies are now making their diversity statistics public, and certainly the companies we work with are working hard to improve diversity.

One of the big challenges is around how we encourage young girls to go into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. The barrier for many parents and teachers is how do you influence children to learn in an area where you might not have experience? Unless you’re a developer, I can understand why a parent might be reluctant or unsure about how to approach computer science. The benefit is, there are lots of opportunities out there in terms of doing projects with your kids, taking them to science museums, getting them involved in programmes like the Hour of Code or getting coding kits. It’s not about having to sit on a computer all day and forcing them to write code. But it is about showing girls how exciting it can be, and helping them to build things and use their imagination with technology – that stays with them. During my childhood for example, I had some of the traditional Barbie dolls, and dolls houses, but I also had Meccano kits, electronic sets and microscope kits, helping me to explore how technology can be exciting.

Make coding compulsory

If we look at technology it is pretty much the fibre that holds us together these days. We carry computers in our pocket and almost everybody in the UK is interacting with technology on a daily, hourly and even minute-by-minute basis. The question then becomes if our children don’t understand the fundamentals of how all this tech works, then how will they have successful careers? The East London Science School for example has compulsory coding classes for all of their students, and I think that is the way to go. Everyone has to get involved and, as far as government is concerned, the more we can build technology into the educational curriculum and help teachers deliver this content, the better.

For more information go to Code First: Girls