'Want diversity and girl leaders in tech?' Just give them the opportunity, says Tony Parkin

A key challenge facing the digital technology sector is the lack of diversity in the sector’s workforce. Typically only around 12 per cent of technology staffing is female, for example.

A number of theories have been put forward about why this might be, with proposals to help address the issue. One is to encourage female students to take on digital leadership, and the GDST Digital Leaders Conference 2017 showed just how effective this strategy can be.

GDST leaders event in actionThis, the third GDST Digital Leaders Conference, took place at South Hampstead High School earlier this year. More than 200 students, aged from 10 to 18, gathered from 22 schools across the Trust, along with 60 teachers and mentors for a day of inspiration and digital and entrepreneurial challenge.

And those of us fortunate enough to be there left feeling very aware that there is no shortage of skills, ambition and enthusiasm among the potential digitech female workforce of the future. As the Apps for Good movement has also demonstrated, get the nature of the challenge right, and the design and logistics correct, and girls are demonstrably as able, competent, enthusiastic and committed as their male peers. We need to look elsewhere for explanations for that low proportion of women in the workforce!

Who are the digital leaders?

Digital leaders are school students who have been identified as having an interest and aptitude for digital technology at school. The scheme is relatively informal, and will vary in nature from one school to another, but its unifying feature is the energy, passion and commitment demonstrated by students for the field of digital technology.

Recognising this grassroots movement, three years ago the Girls Day School Trust (GDST) organised the first of its annual Digital Leaders Conferences for member schools. One aim of these conferences is to recognise and showcase the work of digital leaders at the GDST schools, another is to encourage the students to pursue studies, and eventually careers, in the field of digital technology. To further these auims, the GDST assembles an impressive array of technology role models, some of whom are male, but the majority are women already working and succeeding in the digital sector.

This year the theme of the conference was language learning. Prior to the event the teams had been advised to conduct some research around the theme, and in particular to look at products that are already available in the language learning market. It was also suggested that they may like to consider a particular area of languages and digital technology that they would like to focus on for the challenge.

From a yurt in Mongolia to champion of endangered languages

Inky Gibbens, founder of 'Tribalingual'The day opened with a keynote from the impressive Inky Gibbens (@InkyGibbenspictured right), founder of Tribalingual, and a perfect, youthful exemplar of the digital and linguistic entrepreneurial spirit the day aimed to foster. Born in a yurt in Mongolia, challenging but successful schooldays in the UK were followed by university and business success.

Then, discovering that her grandmaternal native language of Buryat was endangered, she found her real passion for trying to save such languages, which are currently disappearing at the rate of one every few days. Her career diverted from business to entrepreneurship, and she set up Tribalingual, an online platform which aims to save endangered languages by linking would-be learners with native speakers.

I suspect if one wrote a romantic novel with this character and plotline every publisher would reject it as implausible. But the excellent and forthright Inky showed that these things can and do happen if you discover your passion, and commit yourself to achieving it. So far, so uplifting.

On to the main event. Only on the actual day did the teams receive the full details of the challenge — to develop an event, campaign, competition, app, website or product that helped promote language learning via digital technology. It had to be innovative, and have a clearly identified USP (unique selling point).

Not only did they have to produce a visual mock-up of the product, they also had to create a marketing plan, promotional material… oh, and a business case with a pricing model. And they would be judged on all these aspects. As if this wasn’t challenge enough, they only had around three hours to complete the project, including lunch and a separate workshop that also ate into the precious time allowed.

Students take the lead 

As I strolled around the hall, two things became immediately clear. The first was obvious, a huge rush of energy as the teams began their work — the atmosphere was absolutely vibrant. The second was subtler. While at some tables teachers were corralling the students, doing much of the talking, and organising projects, at others the students were clearly taking the lead, and the teachers were sitting back a little. One table of very active digital leaders in particular struck me, and I chatted briefly to their associated mentor. "Oh, they do really well each year, this team," he said. All my beliefs about the importance of student leadership were immediately reinforced.

Dee SaigalThrough just over three hours of the main challenge I was kindly allowed to observe the team from Norwich High School for Girls. This enabled me not only to follow the mentoring activity of Dee Saigal (pictured left), the CEO of Erase All Kittens, but also just see in detail how a team of nine students addressed such a complex challenge in only a few hours. And to be hugely impressed by both.

One obvious aspect of the Norwich team was that although there were five students from the upper school, they had also included four students from Year 5 to help share the learning and fun of the day. And as the work progressed it was inspiring to see how tasks were decided upon and distributed, so that the Year 5 students could take on and independently manage tasks in which they were competent. True student digital leadership at work.

GSDT digital leader eventGradually the various elements of "Lingeur", their particular language learning proposal, took shape. The logo was developed (I just can’t imagine where the inspiration for that logo shape came from!). Animated adverts created, business models and marketing materials, including a website, were designed. Mentoring was sought as required. Lots of laughter and fun, minimal evidence of egos or tension.

The pace accelerated to feverish as the 2.15pm deadline approached, and the tablecloth was transformed into a giant display. But no nerves frayed, no-one got snappy with one another, and gradually, piece by piece, the proposal fell into place.

Dee Saigal and I were just so impressed. As Dee remarked, it took her own project team months to get around to realising the importance of some of the aspects these girls were coming up with in a few hours. But it was also clear the girls really valued and benefited from having a mentor like Dee to bounce these ideas off, someone who faces such issues on a daily basis herself.

I also managed to grab some time to talk to the students in the Norwich team. Or more accurately, to listen to the students after asking them for their take on the day. These were very articulate girls with lots to say about being digital leaders, their roles in the project, and women and digital technology in general.

No time to Lingeur... 

Lingeur logoImpressive logo for Lingeur

I was particularly impressed by the comments Arshia, one of the Year 5 members of the group, made about the team’s way of working. She was extremely aware and appreciative of the way the older girls had afforded space and opportunity for the younger girls to lead on some of the tasks.

They had really helped the Year 5s grasp the concepts, learn new software, and then lead on activities such as the animated film and logo creation, rather than dominating all aspects of the challenge. I had observed this happening, but it was important and satisfying to realise that it felt like that to the Year 5 girls too!

I had been particularly impressed by one of the older girls, Chelsea, who had unobtrusively and effectively demonstrated leadership throughout the whole session. Not by dominating discussion, but just by the sort of effective project management that is so crucial to success. I did manage to grab a few minutes of Chelsea’s time too (see separate section), and this was long enough to have an existing belief in the importance of developing student digital leadership absolutely confirmed.

Lingualini logoThe Lingualini team's logoDuring the judging process the students got to meet with students from the other schools, as they walked around to look at other teams' efforts. A wide and impressive range of solutions were on display, including several, such as "Lingualini" from Sutton High School, which incorporated virtual reality headsets, avatars and gamification. Cutting edge stuff. Lots of constructive challenges, thoughtful questioning, and lovely appreciative remarks as the girls saw the approaches the other schools had taken. And alongside the judges they also got to vote for their favourite solution from another school for the People’s Choice Award.

A fascinating panel discussion (pictured below) about the challenges and opportunities for women in IT then furnished another opportunity for authentic role-model engagement. With an expert platform including a web graphic designer, a hedge-fund systems engineer, an online entrepreneur and a web solution provider, there was something for everyone to aspire to. Also to see that. whatever the statistics suggestd, gender was not a barrier to digital success.

GDST expert panelIndeed one of the panel even suggested that their relative scarcity made them an even more desirable asset. The first question from a student digital leader was, “How does your work benefit the world?”! A torrent of equally challenging and pragmatic queries followed.

By now it's clear that I had had a wonderful time observing this event. The icing on the cake was still to come. It was now time for the verdicts from the judges. Amy Icke, the GDST’s digital learning platform manager who had organised the event so superbly, along with keynoter Inky Gibbens, took to the stage to announce the winners. The Gold Award went to a team from Croydon High. But the Norwich team that I had been observing took both a Silver and the People’s Choice Award! So the whole room was clearly as impressed as I had been by this wonderful team from Norwich High School.

As I left South Hampstead High School after a truly inspiring day I found myself reflecting on a number of things. First, that the Student Digital Leaders programme is just as amazing, and needed, as it was ten years ago, and it is sad that it has not received wider recognition, sponsorship and uptake. Second, that any prejudices about the GDST being a rather old-fashioned organisation were clearly entirely misplaced; this was one of the most innovative digital technology gatherings I have attended.

Finally, as I was shown by some perceptive teachers ten years ago, sometimes the secret of enabling girls to show their digital expertise and prowess, is not to ‘pinkify’ the challenges, but maybe to get the sarcastic, aggressive and dominating teenage boys out of the way?

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