Here at Interfuze, we have been acknowledging the missions and values of International Women’s Day - on the official day of 8 March - whilst living out the values and developing a culture that embraces equity every day.
This year’s theme - “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” - is highly relevant for our sector where women have historically been underrepresented with recent statistics drawn from a variety of research showing that women hold only 1/5th of tech-related jobs globally and the total number of women in this sector decreased by about 2.1% from 2020 to 2021.
In December last year the headmistress of my junior and senior school, Miss Sheila Hardcastle, passed away at the age of 97. She embodied how equity can be delivered and many educators today could learn from her. Let me explain.
It’s the early 1980’s. Picture a lady born in 1925, now in middle age and immaculately dressed in twin set and pearls. Steely grey hair that is perfectly styled and an air of quiet calm and authority. Dedicated to being the headmistress of a serious, academic all-girls school, not a fancy expensive one but one that looks old fashioned and requires you to wear a cape (very Harry Potter but nowhere near as cool) and tie.
She has seen that technology is the future and, decades ahead of her time, set up computer labs at the school.
Not a single computer in a dusty room but labs, plural. From age 4, every week we walked down to the senior school for swimming then over to the labs to learn to code, first with programmable robots that drew on whiteboards on the floor (Dr Logo), then moving to BASIC, then in Senior school it was over to the VAX mainframe and learning Pascal.
Yup, a mainframe in an all-girls school in the 1980’s. None of this was optional. Every girl in the school had to do it until age 16, just like we had to learn English and Maths and so it was just what you did, and just like any lessons some people loved it, some hated it, some just did it.
Her school was founded on the belief that ‘Abbey girls could do anything’ and our education should set us up to think that. Not by giving us lectures on empowerment or courses on leadership but by making learning the conventionally unusual completely normal. She never mentioned her belief to us (in fact we rarely saw her speak outside of assembly, she was more just a formidable presence), I know this because she told my mum after I’d left school. To us it was just our timetable and we all got on with it.
According to research done by the UN, there is a persistent gender gap in digital access that keeps women from unlocking technology’s full potential. This stems from the underrepresentation of women in STEM education and careers - major barriers to their participation in tech design and governance.
From the 110ish of us in my year at school two of us went on to study Computer Science, many more studied Maths, Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering, Physics and other STEM subjects. If I look back across my class there was an even split across humanities & sciences, very different from the stats outside of our school.
The irony is that are only two mentions of her on the internet: the date of her passing and the fact that she received an MBE in 1987. The fact that she left an almost zero digital footprint and yet lead so many of us into STEM careers feeling like we belonged there is an incredible legacy and I wish I had said so to her in her lifetime. In truth she did her job so well, it just hadn’t occurred to me, I just thought I’d had a normal education until I was much older and looked back.
While the focus of today is about women if you are striving for equity in any area then this, to me, is how to achieve it. Make it the norm, the standard, the ‘don’t even question it, it’s just what you do or how you are’.
Keep pushing those around you to do the same. Sometimes that means speaking up, sometimes staying quiet.
Hire people because they are the best person for that job – and if they need something ‘unusual’ like part time hours ask them how they can make it work, rather than saying no. It might not always be possible, but it will be far more times than you think it is. And if you think it’s isn’t ask yourself why, really why.
When you’re talking to your daughters or nieces stop and listen to your language. Are you reflecting that STEM is tricky? Or making it accessible and fun. I challenge you to find an 8 year old girl that doesn’t enjoy making a volcano from baking soda and vinegar.
My daughters are both wonderfully artistic and imaginative and could think of nothing worse than working in IT and sitting a desk all day. STEM isn’t for everyone but I rest easy knowing that that’s their choice, not one that someone else made for them.
In memory of Sheila Hardcastle, MBE.