Vicky Butt (2012) gives us the details on how she became interested in coding, ways you can give it a try and why diversity in the field is vital.
When one thinks of a programmer or ‘computer wiz’, the image conjured is frequently of a white male hacker, most likely in a basement with unintelligible script spanning numerous monitors à la Neo in The Matrix or perhaps even Boris in Goldeneye!
I admit, growing up in Essex, I thought no different. Back in high school, I wasn’t exposed to programming and never considered it as a skill or career for me. Somewhat ironically, my Physics teacher pointedly told me that ‘programming is only for boys’! Irritatingly, I never thought to question this blatant sexism until I fell into programming while I was studying Natural Sciences at St John’s.
I interned at a computational biology lab between my second and third year, analysing datasets of video footage of worm behaviour — rather niche! It was then that I realised that a lot of bioscience research depends on data analysis and “Big Data”. I therefore jumped onto the bandwagon of Big Data, taught myself how to program properly through online resources, and in my fourth and final year received my formal training in Systems Biology.
Despite common misconceptions, you can start learning to program well after your twenties
Feeling inspired, that same year I also decided to organise free coding courses for female students at Cambridge, and St John’s kindly allowed me to host them in College. The courses I gave were created by Code First: Girls and taught a broad range of coding, from introductory web development to more advanced programming in the ‘Python’ coding language. Despite common misconceptions, you can start learning to program well after your twenties. In fact, there are organisations out there, such as #techmums, run by Professor Dame Sue Black, which provide free coding courses and career mentoring for mothers.
One of the wonderful things about becoming more and more familiar with the world of code is that it is a rapidly developing field of new programming languages and technologies. Alongside doing a Computational Biology PhD in London, I currently run a social enterprise called Researc/hers Code (researcherscode.com) that supports diversity in Computational Sciences across academia and industry. We do this through hosting interactive events and workshops, such as public engagement events, to showcase the talent of diversity, and specific skills workshops for those wanting to develop within academia or branch into industry. These include “From PhD to Start-up” at Entrepreneur First in October to help PhD students consider careers in start-ups and small companies, and a “Women Who Tech” event showcasing the talent of women and BAME women working in technology.
After teaching a coding workshop at the College’s Donor Day this year, guests (many with limited computer experience) learnt to create beautiful spiral graphics using code. If you would like to create these at home, the instructions can be found here. There are also plenty of other fantastic resources for self-teaching code from scratch, such edx.org, coursera.org, codecademy.com and datacamp.com.
We can all learn how to program, but very few of us actually take up this opportunity. In 2018, only 12% of pupils taking Computer Science A-Level were girls. In 2015, when the government replaced the obsolete ICT GCSE with a more 21st century-compatible Computer Science GCSE, the proportion of girls fell from 40% in ICT to 20% in Computer Science. Sadly this drop-out rate continues higher-up the career ladder. One of the many issues is that women are reaching fewer leadership positions, which goes hand-in-hand with their withdrawal from STEM careers. This is due to a variety of factors, including the lack of visible female role-models, the pressures of a poor work-life balance and even workplace bullying.
So why does diversity matter in the workplace? Aside from the obvious need for balance and equal representation, the economy would actually prosper if this was more widespread. A study in 2016 showed that widespread gender diversity in company management boards led to significantly higher profits in the USA. A board of diverse people lends to more diverse ways of thinking, more discourse and better decision making. It is illegal for a workplace to discriminate against a person due to their race, gender, health or disability, yet our schools and workplaces are subconsciously biased towards discrimination. An effective way to tackle this is to ensure schools, institutions and companies present opportunities that are accessible to everyone through public engagement and creating supportive communities.
I am so proud to come from a College which values outreach as highly as I do, and am eager to see what changes schemes such as the St John’s Studentships will produce in the next generation of students as a broader range of gifted students come to Cambridge. Coding can and should be accessible to all, and I very much encourage everyone, regardless of gender, race or stage of life, to give it a try. You may discover that you love it!