Role Models

Well, here goes… attempt number two to write this post after the original version disappeared into the ether last night for no apparent reason.

People often ask me what we can do to address the gender inbalance in the world of coding, computing and digital making and I always have the same reply “We need more positive role models for girls interested in coding”. Think about it, when we think of famous coders, developers, programmers and makers they all have one thing in common – they are almost all white, middle-aged and male. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with being white, middle-aged and male, but it’s not exactly inspiring for teenage girls to go into an industry that appears to be entirely populated by people who they can’t identify with.

Computing has a bit of an image problem and it doesn’t exactly help matters that we often use Ada Lovelace as a shining beacon of a female role model in the world of coding. Yes, she was the first ever programming and yes, she was a rebel and an awesome person, but she died over 160 years ago so she’s not exactly contemporary. We also tend to highlight Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper, who are excellent examples of women who changed the world, but your average teenage girl isn’t going to be excited by a picture of a woman in her 70s receiving an award. How are we going to convince teenage girls that coding is cool when the only role models they have were born before their grandparents?

If you ask young people today what they’d like to be when they grow up, you’re less likely to hear “footballer, fireman, pop star” and more likely to hear YouTuber high on the list – the role models that our young people aspire to be like are those that are involved with digital content, that are relatable and fun and we should be capitalising on that in the maker community to identify other role models that can inspire young people and especially young women, to get involved.

So, rather than just identify the problem, I’m going to share with you now some of my favourite inspiring role models.

Carrie Anne Philbin

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Four years ago, while trawling twitter for a way to upskill my computer science teaching in anticipation of the curriculum change, I came across something called “Picademy” and decided to apply. Little did I know how much attending picademy would change my life and I owe a huge debt of thanks to Carrie Anne Philbin for being a real role model to myself and hundreds of other teachers around the world. Carrie Anne shows us that anyone can be involved with digital making – she is fun, exciting, innovative and inspiring and she certainly succeeded in getting me excited about what I could do and why.

Originally a secondary school teacher, Carrie Anne is now Director of Education at the Raspberry Pi Foundation where she continues to inspire us all with her empassioned talks on inclusion, digital making and EdTech. She has published a book, has her own YouTube channel, GeekGurlDiaries and is the face of the Computer Science course for US YouTube big hitter, Crash Course. Add to that that she’s a genuinely nice person and you can easily see why Carrie Anne should be considered as a modern day Role Model for Women in Tech!

Tanya Fish

Tanya is an ex-teacher who works for Pimoroni involved in making their incredible range of products even more awesome and education-ready.

For me, Tanya is a role model for a number of reasons – she’s not just an awesome, multi-coloured hair, giant flashing boots-wearing bundle of energy and fun, she’s also a proud ‘Aspergirl’ having recently received a diagnosis of ASD after years of wondering. Tanya loves to make feel-good and fun makes that demonstrate that anyone can be a digital maker. One of my favourite projects that she has worked on are NFC nails which flash when they go near any NFC reader – Tanya even went so far as to take a nail technician course to combine some of her favourite hobbies!

Tanya’s project demonstrate that she’s both a maker and an engineer determined to make things that appeal to anyone and everyone which make it easy to get started and even easier to be inspired for your next digital making projects.

Iseult Mangan

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There is often a perception that once a woman has a few children, they’ll stop working and stop pushing boundaries for success. Iseult proves that this is definitely not that case – not only does she have four incredible children (one of whom, Aoibheann, won European Digital Girl of the Year in Brussels last year because of her volunteer work for Coder Dojo runnning workshops for coding in her local community), she also teaches, runs workshops, advises the Irish Government on steps towards establishing a Computing curriculum and attends events aroud the UK sharing her passion and love for coding and EdTech.

Whenever I spend time with Iseult, I leave feeling inspired to push myself more – she is such a lovely person to spend time with and has an amazing ability to make everyone around her feel positive about themselves and for me she an incredible role model for women as she proves that it is possible to have a fantastic family and still be a fabulous digital maker.

Rachel Wong

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People often associate coding, electronics and digital making with a slightly masculine image, but Rachel certainly goes out of her way to disprove that idea. She is best described as all things pink, fluffy and feminine and she’s proud to be a very girlie girl. Her making projects combine fashion with glitter, LEDs and even robotics. She is a real 21st century girl whilst also being an enthusiastic and fun maker who isn’t afraid to try new things.

On top of all of this, Rachel is also a scientist by profession and is also open about her struggles with anxiety and depression, making her a role model in so many different ways. You can’t help but be infused with her infectious enthusiasm when you meet her at events and she’s a fabulous role model for girls around the world.

Avye

How many 10 year olds do you know that spend their weekends running robotics workshops for strangers? That’s exactly what ten year old Avye does and she’s really determined to make her mark on the maker world. Avye began learning to code at the age of seven and is familiar with a variety of programming languages as she attends regular workshops in her spare time. She has begun delivering workshops at her local Coder Dojo and was one of 12 young people selected to take part in the Young Coders Conference at the Tate Modern. Inspired by the courses she helped develop, Avye is now running more and more frequent workshops and has recently successfully raised funds to run a Girls Only Coding Event at Wimbledon Library – she wanted to be able to give all of the attendees some coding kit to take home and so she has raised over £1000 to be able to give them all micro:bits and other accessories.

What I really like about Avye is that she is independent and determined, whilst still being a really lovely young lady to spend time with. She feels passionately about promoting coding and support young women like herself to feel comfortable and supported so that they will be willing to give it a go. Avye is a real role model for girls and I suspect we’ll see more of her as time goes on as she’s a real little star in the making.

So, I’ve told you about some of the ladies I think we should be highlighting to draw attention to women in tech, but I’m sure you’ve all got plenty of ideas for other people who should be on this list too. I know I could’ve easily made the list at least three times as long based on people I’ve met at events and spoken to on social media. Why not let me know in the comments section what you think – I’d love to hear who else could have been included and why!

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6 thoughts on “Role Models

  1. apart from the fact that ada lovelace invented programming itself, while grace hopper influenced practically every modern language in mainstream use today– long before she was 70 years old! i would say that if you cant make those two women interesting and relevant then youre doing it wrong.

    other than that (hopper is a giant inspiration to me, i use one of her most revolutionary ideas in language design to defend my own approach to teaching coding– and shes quite capable of inspiring me without being the same gender) it looks like a good list.

    you could probably add another 20 women to it if you spent some time on github looking for female software authors and then looking them up via their webpages. as for ada lovelace– she invented the program loop (which is the basis for the event loop and all interactive programming, thus most modern applications including video games) so… yeah, dont rely too much on ageism to be interesting and relevant.

    i think its reasonable to hunt for good female role models for women, but for each of those girls you teach you just never know– the role model that inspires them most could be male, too.

    i think all this segregation is philosophically flawed and commercially opportunistic (of those promoting it in business, im not blaming teachers for this) but if thats what it really takes to get more females into the tech workforce im not strictly against it– i very much wish we could teach inclusion in a way that was well– not divided by gender. thats a huge debate there and i almost dont want to mention it– but we are entertaining ageism now too. i can tell you, theres a lot of ageism in tech– even in the volunteer/community sector!

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    1. Hi,

      Just a few points of clarification, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with those three women, in fact, they are personal role models of mine, but young people today don’t necessarily want to look at someone who succeeded 40 years ago, they want to see someone succeeding now, not least because technology has changed so much even in the last ten years. We have to ensure that young women have decent contemporary role models as well as those figures from the past that changed the world (trust me when I say that I mean no fault on teachers for using Lovelace, Hopper and Hamilton – I do too as I think they’re inspiring role models, but we also need to think about people who are succeeding right now if we’re to really inspire young people).

      In terms of the gender divide – it’s not that we don’t want men to be role models, indeed my own inspiration for teaching was a male teacher, but I am saying that currently the role models are all of one type and we need to be pushing forward a greater diversity of role models which means empowering girls and women to find figures they can identify with. It’s not about segreating, it’s about acknowledging that there is a problem and identifying a solution.

      I fear you have got caught up in the contraversy behind a gender debate rather than recognising that this is a piece about the importance of contemporary role models if we want to create a truly diverse workplace. It’s also about acknowledging some inspirational women who are breaking stereotypes and just generally being incredible.

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      1. “we need to pushing forward a greater diversity of role models” <- i do agree with this, by the way.

        and the suggestion about github was sincere; theres a girl who works at the store down the street who codes in python and makes apps with mit app-inventor, and youre probably surrounded by people you could bring into your class to inspire your students. even people who are (still) closer to being peers. as for the rest– i almost didnt want to mention it. good luck!

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  2. A really great, interesting list of contemporary women (and one girl!) and also an interesting thought on why the ‘traditional’ role models don’t necessarily work. As you say, age definitely has something to do with it. I’m in the older group that gets inspired by people, regardless of gender, but I can see when you’re a youngster, it’s imperative that there are people who you can look up to. And because you’re young, you’re looking for people who you can see yourself growing into.

    I’m all for ‘everyone inspiring everyone else’ but, at the moment at least, this doesn’t happen regularly. Your gender and those of your potential role models matters a lot.

    If I was to single out someone I know, it’s Lorraine Underwood (@lmcunderwood) – a relentlessly outwardly-cheery mum-turned-maker who takes on projects that others would baulk at. 🙂

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  3. Yes, I really enjoyed reading this and will bear your list, plus Michael’s addition, in mind when I suggest to women and girls (in Code Club or at a Rasp Jam) who they should follow on Twitter. And of course, that Cat Lamin will be included on my list!

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  4. Helene

    I really enjoyed reading this blog because I can relate to it. Not because my daughter Avye is mentioned but because as a mum of a young girl I am living the experience. You can give these girls many names of women who have achieved great things in tech or science but often they remain just ‘name’ in their heads. Until they see someone in action (talking, doing things, leading, etc.) they do not really make that connection. Therefore as you are saying, it is important for these young girls to see contemporary people and to meet them if possible. Avye likes other girls or women making/doing stuff but unfortunately does not see enough of them. She was all buzzed up when she heard Cat making a talk or when she participated in one of Rachel’s workshops! I am not excluding males in the picture, we need everybody. But we do need more women/girls in STEAM! That is a fact.

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