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Cyber Girls First @ Cardiff University

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The Cyber Girls First initiative was the brainchild of Pat Ryan – her aim was to improve the number of girls wanting to choose STEM subjects at GCSE and A-level. Cyber Girls First has grown into a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, made up of a group of like-minded individuals keen to promote the importance of getting more girls into the IT/coding industry.

 

The Cyber Girls First team have put on a series of very successful events in London, Cardiff, Chelmsford and Southampton, and a second Cyber Girls First Day @ Cardiff University took place last week in the School of Computer Science and Information.

We spoke to Pat Ryan in the days leading up to the event, which provides 64 girls at Key Stage 3 with the opportunity to tackle coding problems and learn about the cyber and coding careers available to them.

Today only 12% of jobs in STEM subjects are filled by women, yet women constitute 51% of the UK population. But during WWII some 60% of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park were women, so are we going backwards fast?

Yes, we need to reverse this trend because we are losing the opportunity to bring in the badly needed skills from the women in this country.  The Duchess of Cambridge’s grandmother was a code-breaker at Bletchley Park during the war, numbering about 5,000.  Civilians and members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service ran the computers and even repaired them, so Bletchley would never have achieved what it did during WWII without women.  There is a definite attitude among boys and young men that Computer Sciences are not suitable for girls.  We need to refute that.

I decided to set up Cyber Girls First so that we could capture young women’s attention between the ages of 11 and 14 before they choose their GCSE subjects at 14.  Many of them are stunned at how much they enjoy the coding sessions, and learn about the history of computing going back to Alan Turing, W. T. Tutte, and Gordon Welchman – and NOT forgetting Joan Clarke who was Alan Turing’s deputy at Bletchley Park and who was played by Keira Knightley in the film “The Imitation Game”.  She achieved a Double First in Maths yet wasn’t awarded a Fellowship at Oxford because she was a woman.

How did Cyber Girls First come about? Is it a charitable foundation?

Cyber Girls First is not a charity; we have been assigned something called a ‘Community Interest Company’ or CIC by Companies House.  This is a non-profit status because we do not have shareholders, directors or profit-sharing, in fact, any profits are ploughed back into the organisation to pay for additional help we give to girls and schools.  For example, some schools in inner cities do not have the funds to pay for transport to take the girls to one of our events because the venue is often a university on the outskirts of the city.  This is the exact opposite of what we want to achieve, and we don’t want to put the parents into a situation where they cannot afford to pay for it themselves.  Where a school has this problem, we pay a large percentage of the cost.

 

We have no paid staff. Robert Dowell is our coding trainer (and also teaches computer history) and I do all the administration and fund-raising. All the other people are from companies who provide items for the goody-bags and send their people to the events to talk to the girls about their careers.

How many girls have you helped to inspire?

We are still in the early stages. We’ve done six events in 12 months with another two big events coming up before Christmas, and more planned for the New Year. Early in 2018, we have events already planned at Bethnal Green, Chester University (in conjunction with the RAF) and Swansea. 

We have not been going long enough to see if any girls have gone on to work in IT/coding areas after working with us.  Bringing in girls aged 11-14 only gives them the opportunity to look at GCSE and A Levels in Computer Sciences. Our connection with IntoUniversity encourages them to go to those centres around the UK and continue their interest in IT through the training provided during weekends and school holidays.  I do know that many of the girls who have come to our events have gone into GCSE and A Level studies, and that’s a big step forward.  We are working with the GCHQ/NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre in Cheltenham) and they have attended our events to talk to the girls.

What type of activities do you run? How do you decide which areas to help (geographically)? Do you work with partners?

So far, we have run these from universities and organisations who have requested them to be held on their sites, so it’s the pro-active ones who have these events.  The people who have helped are:

  • pi-top systems who provide the machines for the coding
  • Holistec’s CEO who sponsored the balloon launch at the event held at Moneypenny in Wrexham
  • RS Components/DesignSpark provided a Raspberry Pi 3 and adaptors for each girl
  • J.P. Morgan who provides top-quality t-shirts printed with our logo for every girl, along with paying for lunches and items for the goody-bags
  • The supporting university provides cotton bags for all the goodies, which the girls loved.
  • BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT – provides pens, pads and other goodies.
  • Avanade who provide expensive gel pens for each girl. Very popular!
  • 10 Downing Street’s Deputy Director

We run a tight agenda, starting with a talk on the beginning of computing in WWII, showing them the so-called “portable” phones in the 70s and how their mobile phones combine all that equipment into one pocket-size machine. 

We then have ladies from, for example, Raytheon who work on engineering projects and bring along small robots run from iPads and allow the girls to try them out during the lunch-hour; a lady from 10 Downing Street who is Deputy Director and working with the PM on her communications and security; We have two hours of coding using Python and Raspberry Pi along with coding leaflets which the girls can take home to try on their own computers.

 

We teach them about the women who have made major contributions to the development of IT since the war years. And they are given a pamphlet to take home going back to Ada Lovelace (the daughter of the English poet Lord Byron).  She is considered to be the first computer programmer

What’s your greatest ambition for Cyber Girls First?

So far we have had universities coming to us to ask for an event on their campus, so we would like to see universities across England and Wales realising the value of our events in encouraging girls into these careers.  We can’t do anything in Scotland because they have their own organisation, especially for Community Interest Companies and charities, which would preclude us from that part of the country. My greatest ambition? I would like to see a surge in interest from girls who had not considered Computer Science as an option before.

What can DesignSpark and RS do to help? How can we help to spread the word?

By publicising what we do, and what RS DesignSpark is already doing to help us. Cardiff University Department of Computer Science and Informatics has been very proactive from the start of our programme and is coordinating with their Astro-Physics Department (who first discovered the gravitational wave which has been travelling across space for 137 million years and reached Earth recently) to continue to provide an outreach programme to schools, especially those coming to Cardiff on the 17th November and will be given the RS Components in the goody-bags.

Are you looking for volunteers?

Yes.  When we go into any university in the UK, it would be extremely helpful to have a database of potential helpers. J.P. Morgan has ambassadors in all the universities so that is a big help.


Editor’s note: if you are UK-based and would consider volunteering for Cyber Girls First, please let us know in the form below.

Do you have a personal motto, mantra or some inspirational words you would like to share?

I don’t want to see women given preferential treatment simply because they are women.  I want them to take their place on this exciting career-path and to know they are there because of their ability, not because they are women.  I don’t believe in positive discrimination and wouldn’t want to be given a job simply because I’m a woman.  I suffered from reverse discrimination for many years and was told it wasn’t worth educating me because I’m a woman and will just get married and have children.  I always repeated my father’s edict:  “An educated woman is an educated family.”

Who was/is your biggest inspiration or engineering hero?

Joan Clarke, Deputy to Alan Turing during WWII at Bletchley Park.  She had to overcome enormous prejudice and won her Double-First in spite of it.  This year is the 100th anniversary of her birth and I have been helping to find someone who would unveil a plaque in her honour at her school in London.

Also, I greatly admire Dame Stephanie Shirley who was a refugee from Nazi tyranny before WWII. She came in on the special trains which brought Jewish children to safety in the UK and has gone on to be a self-made millionaire who has set up IT companies and become one of the great charitable donors in the country. 

If you could go back, would you do anything differently in your career?

I spent 20 years at home bringing up my children and I have never regretted that time.  I would probably have risen higher up the ranks if I’d stayed in business, but one thing is for sure, I was not a physicist and I was a bit early for computer sciences.  The reason I do what I do is that I see the terrible havoc which could be wreaked upon the UK from countries or people who want to do us harm, and I, therefore, want more women to fill the ranks in Computer Sciences.  I did a lecture at a university two years’ ago and I asked the question “What would happen if a terrorist hacked into our power grids and closed down all the electricity and gas provisions?”  It’s terrifying.  One bank in the City of London admits to having to deal with 200,000 hacking attempts every day.

DesignSpark is very proud to support Cyber Girls First in their mission. Well done to all the girls who attended Cardiff University last week – we hope you had an inspiring day.

Editor’s note: if you are UK-based and would consider volunteering for Cyber Girls First, please let us know in the form below. Your contact details will be shared with Pat Ryan at Cyber Girls First only.

DesignSpark Community Manager and all-around geek girl.

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