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The Women Turning the Tide on the Gender Divide in the Leeds Tech Industry

· Ali Turner · Discussion

A new generation of digital leaders are on the way – and they’re all women.

Sky Get into Tech

Sky's Get into Tech initiative aims to provide a unique and supportive environment in which women with little or no previous technical experience can learn some of the skills necessary to begin a career in software development.Find out more...

It may feel like a male-dominated industry, but these women are proof that you don’t have to be a guy to get into tech.

It’s no secret that there’s a massive gender divide in the tech industry. But behind the scenes, a shift is happening, as businesses begin to recognise that they need to attract more women into the industry – and it’s not just in the capital, it’s happening right here in Leeds.

Sky is one of the guiding lights in this movement, but they’ll be the first to tell you that it isn’t an entirely selfless mission. Research has shown that innovation and diversity are inextricably linked. It’s not just gender – ethnicity and sexual orientation are just as important, as are personal experiences, perspectives and backgrounds. So if they want to stay at the top of their game, they need to attract more women and more minorities into the industry.

The woman leading the charge

Sky's Get into Tech

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“In a world where we truly believe in merit, you have to have diversity to have the best, you just have to. I don’t believe in a world where the best people all look the same and have the same background, that’s insane. So gender diversity is absolutely critical – if we want to build products that people are not just willing to use, but actually love, then we have to have a pool of people making them who reflect the people using them,” Renee Hunt, Director of Digital Platforms at Sky told us.

Not only is Renee one of the few women in the tech industry in a position of leadership, but she also comes from a BAME community, so she understands that you can do anything you set your mind to, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. Since she joined Sky in April 2017, she’s championed the women in tech movement and helped them to attract more women into the industry. From visiting schools to inviting parents and teachers into the workplace, Sky is trying to buck the trend before it starts by catching girls while they’re young and showing them the potential of a career in tech.

But they’re also going after the women who might have missed their chance to pursue a career in tech, either because they weren’t pushed towards it at a young age or because they were put off by the male-dominated industry. They launched Get into Tech, a women-only course that gives students a solid grounding in software development, in 2016. Since then, it’s gone from strength to strength. In their first year, they had just 50 applicants, but that number went up to 300 in 2018, so word is spreading and it’s spreading fast.

Not only has it helped them get more women interested in the tech industry, but it’s also enabled them to attract an even split of men and women to their Software Engineering Academy. “When Sky started our Software Engineering Academy, they found that we had very few women applying, never mind getting in – and I’m talking about single digits,” Renee explained. “But we’ve been able to start our second year with gender parity in the academy and that would never have been possible without Get into Tech.”

Through Get into Tech, they train about 20 women a year in Leeds and around a third of them are selected for the Academy, which means they get 7-months of paid on-the-job training to kick-start their career. It’s not just Sky that benefits though, the other two-thirds of their graduates go on to work in the wider tech industry, so they’re creating a new generation of female coders to help fill the skills shortage in Leeds.

The digital leaders of the future

You might well wonder why the tech industry is having to go to such lengths to attract women and it’s a tricky question to answer, but it’s largely a perception issue. It starts when we’re young, with the games we play and the toys we’re given – much as we’d like to deny it, social conditioning is still a factor – but it continues into adulthood.

There’s a perception that men are logical and women are creative, but even if this was true, creativity is as important to software development as problem-solving. The tech industry is constantly fighting stereotypes. Coding is geeky, techies are brainiacs and men are better coders – the reality is very different, and you need to only look at the latest graduates from Sky’s Get into Tech course to see it.

When Josie Fields applied for the Get into Tech course, she was a full-time librarian. Her degree wasn’t in computer sciences or mathematics, it was in humanities, so she’s not your stereotypical techie, but she is very good at it. Why? Because she’s smart, she’s inquisitive and she wants to be challenged, something that was lacking in her old job. She’s also experienced first-hand what bad, unintuitive software is like. In fact, it’s what inspired her to take the course – using old, out-dated software in the library made her wonder what could be done to fix it and why no one was doing it.

Sky Get into Tech

© Copyright Leeds-List 2018 by Contakt Photography

“If you like puzzles and thinking of creative solutions, if you get frustrated by badly designed apps and software, then why not get involved and be one of the people behind fixing it? I’m going into a career where you can actually solve problems behind the scenes,” she told us. “We’re in this era of digital revolution and there’s a chance to make a real impact and be involved in really wide-reaching projects, which is really exciting. It’s the kind of career where your ideas and your decisions can have an impact all over the world, which is mental.”

Emma Pendlebury has a very different background – she studied physics at university, but by the end of the course, she wasn’t any closer to knowing what she wanted to do with her life. She temped for a while, but missed the challenge of solving problems, so she started to teach herself to code. It’s the best decision she ever made, and now, one year after she graduated from Get into Tech, she’s an iOS developer at Sky.

She loves her job, but she’s not your stereotypical techie. “I’m not someone who is massively into technology, I don’t buy all the latest gadgets or anything like that, but I really enjoy solving problems and I really like the coding side of things,” she told us. “I’m the only female iOS developer on my team, but no one treats me differently because I’m a woman, so I would definitely say to other women, don’t let it put you off. There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t excel and be just as good as the guys.”

Sky Get into Tech

© Copyright Leeds-List 2018 by Contakt Photography

One woman who was put off by the lack of ladies in tech is Jo Reavell. She’s been teaching maths for the last 15 years, but when she first left uni, she went into software development. Although she enjoyed the work, she found the lack of women in the industry intimidating and it knocked her confidence, so it’s a sign that change is coming that she’s decided to go back into tech at the age of 41.

Not only is she bringing a wealth of experience with her, but she also wants to take an active role in attracting more women into the industry. “I’m Assistant Team Lead and in charge of all the A-levels, so I’ve always been really passionate about attracting more girls to do STEM subjects at university. I’d really like to get into outreach, I’ve got my school head on at the moment, so I’d like to come back to schools in a few years and start recruiting young women into the industry.”

From one career changer to another – Jo Wan comes from the most unlikely of places. For the last 15 years, she’s worked in the arts industry. Her work ranged from managing operations for museums to fundraising for the arts and doing public speaking, but when she had her first child, she realised that if she went back to work, her salary would only just cover the childcare, so she’d essentially be working for free.

Sky Get into Tech

That certainly isn’t the case in the tech industry. As demand for developers, scrum masters and tech leaders grows, so too do salaries. And as it turns out, her skills, although gained in an industry that’s completely different from the one she’s moved to, are totally transferable.

“I am now a Scrum Master, which is like a project manager. I started as a software developer, but I always knew I wanted to be a Scrum Master. I lead two groups of developers who work on two different areas of the My Sky app and make sure they’re talking and collaborating,” she told us. “It’s changed my life massively. As well as being paid more than I was, it’s opened up loads of new doors for me, and from a more personal point of view, it’s made me reassess my own abilities, and made me think about where I could get to now, compared to a few years ago – it’s made me feel like I could achieve anything if I put my heart and soul into it.”

Although they come from three courses, they’ve all met. In fact, all the Get into Tech graduates from past and present have met because this year, Sky held their first reunion. Now that they’re all out there, working their way up in the tech industry, their network of contacts will become ever-more important, and although many of them stay in touch, Sky wanted to take it one step further by introducing their new graduates to their old ones. The idea is they’ll build a community of women who can help inspire and challenge each other to become the digital leaders of the future.

As Renee puts it, “In 10 years time, these ladies could be the powerhouse in the IT community in Leeds. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be.”