Why Girls Need Relatable Role Models
My first non Saturday job was actually a tech role, I realise now. At the time it was just a less boring way to make some cash than working in a shop, cleaning rooms in a hotel or the dreaded waitressing, all of which I tried, none of which I excelled at. I worked for my local council, creating content for and updating their YouthZone website – an online hub for council services, a youth services directory and a way for young adults to take pride in their individuality. I coded a little, I used a CMS a lot, I designed pages to generate traffic volume, and I sourced creative content ranging from “photo stories” (a bit like the 00s version of Instagram or Snapchat stories) to curating questions for our Agony Aunt, Ask Abi. The site – or platform, as it would be called now – was ahead of its time. This was 2004. There was no Facebook, no YouTube for videos and advice, no Buzzfeed, no Instagram stories, text messaging was still at the stage where you could save 10 max and the iPhone wasn’t invented. This was just 13 years ago.
And I loved it.
I had an unconditional offer from Warwick University to study Politics and International Relations. A top 5 uni, brilliant career prospects and a chance to study something I loved. But, one lunch break, I called up Hull University and arranged to go up to their Scarborough campus to meet the course tutor for the Digital Arts and New Media degree programme at the only Centre for Internet Computing in the UK. It was eye-opening. A room full of iMacs, coding labs named after different types of coffee and a course nobody had heard of. Even the course tutor told me I’d be nuts to turn down Warwick for a place where you could get in with Cs and Ds, but that’s what I did. With hindsight it was the best career decision I made.
Everything was fast and crazy and I was caught up in a world where I felt anything was possible.
The course opened my eyes to a world of endless creativity and importantly, constant change. Nothing stayed the same and I loved that. We explored new and emerging technologies. We learnt to write SMIL (anyone still use that? Nope?) HTML and CSS, studies web standards and accessibility, and the psychology of internet behaviour. We visited the University’s campus in Second Life. Everything was fast and crazy and I was caught up in a world where I felt anything was possible.
Every lecturer and supervisor I had in my three years there was male. There were a few women, but they weren’t programmers or digital artists or designers, they were managing the courses, in the library, or doing the administration. I didn’t actually notice, not consciously anyway – I don’t think many girls do till it’s pointed out – but I did notice that girls on the courses were outnumbered 10:1 by the guys. I wasn’t alone – another techie-minded girl, Kit, was on a similar course to me. She was bright, ambitious and passionate about digital. We both spoke up in lectures, but I was a lot more vocal when Kit was there. I don’t think I realised that till later, either. It’s encouragement through presence, inspiration by simply being there.
I think that’s still what’s missing.
On the surface, there are more role models in technology for girls now. Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo), Whitney Wolfe (Tinder), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube) are just a few. But they’re the “few” – the famous ones we’re told to look up to because if they can get there we can too. It doesn’t work like that. Role models have to be relatable. You have to be able to see yourself as them. In the words of someone much wiser than me, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it
Kit inspired and encouraged me by simply being in the room. It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t me thinking “wow, I have a mentor” or “I want to be like her”. It was a subconscious recognition of not being alone, and from this, being able to speak up.
The future is digital. Many of today’s schoolgirls and university students will have jobs in technology. Some of their career paths won’t have been invented yet! Men will still dominate those careers, until things change. And they have to change.
I want every girl to have a relatable role model. Someone she can look to, however unconsciously, and be reminded that she can be brave and she can be brilliant and she has a right to speak. Just like I had. That’s one small way the world will change.