In 2019, the number of pupils who studied A-Level computing in the UK was 11,124. Of those students, only 1,475 were identified as female.

The long-standing gender imbalance that is found within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and careers has been the focus of governments, panel sessions, company initiatives and internal meetings for a number of years. However, very few organisations have put their money where their mouth is to help make a difference.

anna brailsford

Code First: Girls is one such organisation that is making a real difference, having already given more than 10,000 women across the UK free coding classes. Founded in 2012 by the Entrepreneur First cofounders Alice Bentinck and Matthew Clifford, the non-profit offers free, part-time coding courses for female and non-binary identifying young adults across the UK and Ireland.

When Bentinck spoke to Techworld earlier this year, she said the charity wanted to teach another 10,000 women to code in the next 12 months. In June of 2019, that challenge was passed on to former LinkedIn commercial director, Anna Brailsford, when she was appointed CEO of Code First: Girls.

Taking the reins at an organisation that aims to educate seems like a natural career progression for Brailsford. Her first encounter with edtech came from her family's business and it was the exposure to that during her summer holidays that led her to start getting more involved in education and technology.

"I started to understand the mechanics of business which helped me to understand profit and loss, product and market and really about being an entrepreneur, all at a young age," Brailsford tells Techworld over the phone.

After university, she joined a business that operated in the education space before getting headhunted by Lynda.com in the run-up to its acquisition by LinkedIn. After Lynda.com was purchased for $1.5 billion, making its founder Lynda Weinman "the 57th richest woman in America, just behind Beyoncé", Brailsford was made EMEA commercial director of the newly branded LinkedIn Learning. As well as climbing the edtech career ladder, she has also held a number of inclusivity and diversity positions over the last half decade.

"I had reached a point in my own personal trajectory where I felt like I wanted to do something to give back or pay it forward," she says. "I've always been drawn to women's education, women that have done incredibly well in the workplace and how I can build businesses which can benefit others and have an impact on society. So, for me, as a proposition, this was exceptionally rare and that's why I agreed to go forward with the process [of applying for the job at Code First: Girls]."

In the UK, as university fees continue to sky-rocket, many young people have started to look for alternative ways to gain employment. This desire for more vocational education courses, combined with the widening skills gap within the technology sector, has led to the birth of a number of coding schools such as Code First: Girls.

"I think one of the biggest issues within the education space is there's not enough connection between the real world and how the world is changing, particularly in relation to the skills that are needed right now," Brailsford explains. "And, quite frankly, everyone talks about the skills of tomorrow but it's not about the skills of tomorrow, these are skills we needed yesterday. We needed this five years ago so now we are constantly playing catch up because our education system is not linked to the skills that we currently need."

A perfect example of this, and something that Brailsford says she found most astonishing when working with British university students to try and better understand the value of education in the UK, is the amount of computer science courses that didn't offer coding as part of the degree.

"They're not learning to code Python, for example, until second year onwards, which is absolutely bizarre," she adds. "These courses offer a huge amount of theory and academia but the actual skills – the tangible skills, the real skills they need to be developing now – aren't being taught until the second or third year of university.

"What's worse, there's some computer science degrees that will have been specifically designed to get people into the tech world that just do not have enough coding on them. Some of them don't have any coding."

Addressing the gender imbalance

Whether computer science degrees offer coding or not, the fundamental issue is that there still aren't enough young women opting to study the subject. Over the years, there have been plenty of studies looking into the reasons why so few girls choose to study STEM subjects and why even fewer of them decide to embark on a career path that is in some way technical.

Experts claim that everything from a lack of role models, lower levels of self-belief, the damaging effects of unconscious bias or straight-up discrimination are all reasons why, according to a study by PwC, only 15 percent of employees working in STEM roles in the UK are female.

Alongside all of these factors, Brailsford also believes a major part of this problem has to do with the way the tech industry is portrayed and the fact that girls and young women aren't given enough information early on about the quantifiable opportunities that coincide with studying certain subjects.

"If you look at degree disciplines right now, there are maybe five to six degree disciplines where coding would enhance the course in some form but it's not done in a tangible way, or not done in a way which is really useful. We're not just talking about computer science, we're talking about psychology, biology, physical science," says Brailsford.

"Anything that involves statistics, for example, these individuals should be learning about data science, examining figures and statistics through SQL because when you go out and join the real world, say you join a big bank or an airline, whatever it is, if you know that SQL and can run statistics through it, you could practically walk in and become a data manager or focus on data analytics. But, for some reason, there's this disconnect happening, which is exactly where [Code First: Girls] is stepping in."

For Brailsford, the technology industry is divided into three sections: Silicon Valley; hyper-growth companies and unicorns; and legacy companies that are trying to modernise but still aren't seen as being very cool. In her opinion, none of these are particularly inviting to women and therefore put off a lot of girls who are likely to also be aware of the plethora of negative stories about the tech industry that are in the press on a regular basis.

"The companies that I think have had the biggest issues are actually the unicorns," says Brailsford. "They're the companies that young people want to work for; they're where it's at, that's where most of the innovation is happening. However, they're also a breeding ground for terrible stories and some really bad, and quite frankly, sexist practices.

"I think one of the results of these hyper-growth companies is that they haven't actually had a chance to take step back and say, 'hang on a minute, we are developing severe diversity issues here and a toxic work culture'. I think there are many companies that fall into that bucket and it's such a shame because they could be doing so much more."

She explains that the problem that these companies are ultimately going to have is that if you don't involve women in the creation of your product, you're creating a product that really only caters for and understands 50 percent of your potential market: "That's what it comes down to, pure and simple. And that is a big problem in terms of revenue, growth, and actually understanding how to scale your product."

What's next?

When asked how she's going to achieve Bentinck's aim of teaching another 10,000 girls to code, Brailsford laughs, saying that she'd actually started to map out a plan on her whiteboard earlier that day. 

Although she's still relatively new to the job, Brailsford has already started to consult with people at the organisation, looking at the processes, structure and goals the charity has in place to gain a better understanding of how she can help it to achieve success.

"From my perspective, I have two big objectives," she says. "How do we do our jobs in a more efficient way and how do we increase the quality of what we're actually delivering?"

Having worked in edtech for so long, she understands that the traditional learning methods still favoured by educational institutions are no longer fit for purpose. Brailsford is keen for Code First: Girls to deliver a modern learning environment that not only provides young women with coding skills but also fits around their lifestyles.

Although the charity only provides free courses for self-identifying women and non-binary individuals aged 18-23 (paid courses are available for female professionals of all ages), this doesn't automatically mean these young people have unlimited amounts of free time to pursue an extra-curricular coding course. In 2016, 55.2 percent of university students in the UK were female and figures estimate that women account for around 58 percent of British carers.

Code First: Girls is also currently set up to only offer face-to-face courses, meaning Brailsford is wrestling with the challenge of how to change the charity and enable it to scale more efficiently and offer more flexible delivery options. Breaking down these potential entry barriers will not only improve how the courses are delivered, it will also ensure they are more accessible to everyone who wishes to participate.

"I'm thinking about things like virtual classrooms and blended approaches to what we're presently teaching, because, with a modern-day lifestyle, most people can't actually guarantee that they've got 16 hours over the next two or three weeks where they can participate in in-classroom training," says Brailsford. "But, if someone said to me, 'look at this course, it's super flexible and you can take this module here, and you can do that one at home', that would be much more appealing."

However, educating 10,000 young women and girls isn't just about offering flexible, state of the art courses. It's also about going out into communities to find these potential students and show them what Code First: Girls has to offer.

"[One of the challenges] is actually reaching out and finding these women who want to code for free," says Brailsford. "At the moment, we have relationships with over 40 universities in the UK but now, we're looking into how to generate a much bigger buzz on campus. How do we develop deeper relationships and directly communicate with women, as opposed to going to university administrators, which is what we're doing at the moment. That will involve much more activity and a greater involvement with things like freshers' weeks."

As a result, this September, Code First: Girls is running campaigns to coincide with National Coding Week – which this year runs from 16 to 22 September – using Twitter and other social media platforms to try and generate some hype around the work the charity is doing. Brailsford also has plans to channel a greater proportion of the Code First: Girls budget into specific regions, with the aim of reaching out to women and university students that might not have otherwise come across the charity.

She explains: "The next thing is how do we connect those young women who we've taught to code to real companies and create a much richer ecosystem?

"We want to ensure that they're getting more than just two hours a week of coding classes so, for me, that is my biggest challenge at the company. It's all about getting closer to these organisations and telling them: 'if you really want to make a difference, here's how you do it'. The time for talking has come to an end, this is the time for action."

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