12/03/2019

Computer Science student helps girls realise their dreams in the games industry

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Computer Science student helps girls realise their dreams in the games industry

Not too long ago, when describing a scenario that involved the perceptions of computer science, programming and even video games, the story probably resulted in the proverbial stereotype of testosterone-driven anti-social young men with headsets, a can of red bull and fingers dipped in crisp dust.

In celebrating 44 years of International Women’s day, we caught up with Computer Science student and part-time games design tutor, Penny Hindle.

Penny is in her final year at the University of Leeds. Having been given the opportunity to work as a technical project manager for Leeds based e-health systems developer X-lab Ltd, she has secured a full-time job with the company that specialises in building highly scalable solutions which are firmly at the leading edge of healthcare technology.

“I don’t have much experience in games design and perhaps not the career path I’ll take in the long-term. However, I did a module last semester called Computer Graphics which had an element of games design and involved C++, which is a language used for games development.

“Fee, the college’s games consultant is also introducing me to a few ladies who are in the industry and who are getting involved with an initiative called Girls Make Games, which is quite big in America and who run summer camps.

“We are looking to run one at the college for a day in the summer, to help them make games, so that is in the pipeline.”

The struggle to get women in the tech industry

Women have faced occupational segregation in nearly every industry for years. Particularly in the games industry which is said to be a ‘major culprit’ for side-lining women. However, going back almost 200 years ago, the first person to be what we would now call a coder was, in fact, a woman.

Lady Ada Lovelace, enthralled by inventor Charles Babbage’s design to what he called the Analytical Engine, seized the enormous potential of a computer-like device that could modify its own instructions and memory. Lady Lovelace wrote what is frequently regarded as the first computer.

When digital computers finally became a practical reality in the 1940s, women were again pioneers in writing software for the machines because the men preferred building the hardware.

Present day

Fast-forward to the present day, the percentage of women in the programming and games design industry has fallen, with women not understanding how they can be part of it or feeling like the industry is purely for men.

Penny said she had never heard of computer science until she was in year 11 at school.

“Making computers do things is the simplest way of describing computer science. I had never heard of the subject or what kind of jobs you could do with a degree in computer science until I went to a summer school with Durham University, which I went to every year until my first year of college.”

At one of the camps, she says the groups were given a degree subject and had to go away and research what it was and what was part of the degree.

“Some of the group got computer science and I was fascinated by what it entailed, that I looked into it a bit more before going on to do my A levels”.

Penny went to a sixth form college that did computing, where she studied further maths and computing.

“Computing is not a very common A level but in all fairness, it is becoming more popular now.

“If it had not been for my college doing computing, I probably wouldn’t have pursued it at A level and would have studied psychology at university as it was actually my best grade at AS level.” 

It is a lot less common for women to be interested in the tech industry from a young age and many of them have moved into the industry later on in life, without taking the traditional route.

Young women for years have been put off careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and IT, due to so few role models, and the mentality that it is a ‘boys’ club’. Penny said that the perceptions of the industry as a whole need to be changed at an early age.

“Mentorship plays an important role in setting females on a path to success and confidence. By pairing young women with accomplished female professionals, gives them a chance to get one-on-one attention and guidance but also act as living proof that women can achieve success in these types of industries.”

"One of my role models is Natasha Sayce-Zelem, Head of Technology at Sky. She is doing such a great job with empowering women, especially through her initiative Empowering women with tech, which educates and elevates women wanting to go into the industry.”

She said that role models are key to the industry and overall process of recruitment.

“Software developers are so in demand that you don’t really need a degree in computer science. As long as you show the drive and willingness to learn, then huge companies are more likely to hire you and train you on the job.”

Penny says she has been involved with several events, including the STEM ambassadors, which is a group of volunteers from a wide range of science, technology, engineering and mathematics related jobs and disciplines across the UK. They offer their time and enthusiasm to help bring these subjects to life and demonstrate the value of them in life and careers.

Penny said she thinks the tech industry will get better as time goes on but that more needs to be done to raise awareness and that STEM ambassadors are playing a key role in promoting careers in the various sectors especially for women.

Are STEM subjects on the rise for women?

Ground-breaking research by Microsoft surveyed 11,500 women between the ages of 11 and 30 in 12 countries across Europe about their attitudes to STEM. The unique insight found that most girls become interested in STEM when they are about 11. However, most lose interest by age 15. Reasons for this include a lack of female role models in the industry and not enough practical, hands-on experience in primary and high school.

“I think it is important to get girls interested or at least have an understanding of what jobs are available in the tech industry and that they too are capable of building a career, be it as a software developer, games designer or a coder.

“When you are only 15 and are trying to think of what to study at A level, you are more inclined to pick something that looks cool and a lot of girls don’t think something like computer science or games design is cool at that age and  are more likely to do what their friends are doing.”

Penny said that for the industry to get a better reputation there needs to be inclusivity and programmes that highlight the good things about it.

“The tech industry is so cutting-edge and I tell you, it is so satisfying to look at a bit of code that looked like a foreign language a few years ago and just be able to understand it.”

Apprenticeship are key

According to a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the current lack of UK STEM skilled workers is costing the nation’s economy £1.5 billion annually. However, that the potential solution could lie in apprenticeships and that they would be perfect for STEM subjects as the number of people taking them up is on the rise.

“Apprenticeships are really undervalued because the truth is, you don’t really need a degree in computer science to get into the industry.

“Most of those who have done the degree I am doing have said the best experience has been getting a placement or internship. Not to dismiss degrees. There are a lot of advantages to doing one because I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to do some of the jobs or roles I have done so far but practical experience is a great way of helping someone figure out if a career in tech is really for them.”

Penny said that she still felt that the negative aspect of the STEM and IT industries as a whole, was that women needed to prove themselves more to be respected by their counterparts.

“Women already feel intimated especially female software developers and coders but I think this is a chance for both men and women to work together to bring growth to the industry.”

What’s next for Penny?

Penny is due to graduate in July this year and says she is looking forward to starting her full-time role with X-Lab Ltd.

“One of the reasons I have taken the job at X-Lab Ltd is because the environment is friendly and they really encourage me to do outreach work and get involved with charities. There is flexibility and I hope to build a large network in the next 5-10 years and put women on the map in the West Yorkshire region, particularly in Leeds.”

Penny said that she was looking forward to working with Fee to continue helping young girls find their feet as they prepare for a career in the tech industry.

“With Fee running the workshops, it is such an advantage and a lot of staff at Leeds City College are dedicated to improving the students’ experience. I am looking forward to doing more one-on-one tutoring with some of the students as well.”