Code First Girls wants to teach 20,000 women to code by 2020 – and it could give the UK an edge after Brexit

Brexit has been a turbulent time for the UK, and the tech industry is no exception. Back in May, a report by job search marketplace Hired revealed that a massive 41% of all tech workers were less likely to start their own tech business in Britain now that we’re due to leave the EU. In this political climate, foreign talent is being driven away, with workers choosing to flock to countries such as the US, Germany and France instead. So how can the UK remain relevant in the tech industry and plug the gap that Brexit will leave behind? According to Code First Girls, the answer is with women.

The not-for-profit social enterprise, Code First Girls, had its humble beginnings as a programme for the company Entrepreneur First (EF). EF was set up to help accelerate startups and push forward the careers of tech graduates. However, when the founders, Alice Bentinck and Matthew Clifford, noticed that there was a lack of women applying for the accelerator programme, the need for a female-focused initiative became clear. In 2013, they set up Code First Girls, with the hope of changing the male-dominated startup landscape in the UK. As interest in the Code First Girls courses grew, they decided to spin out the initiative as an independent company in 2014, and hired current CEO Amali de Alwis as its first dedicated CEO.

Over the past three years, the company has taught more than 5,000 women how to code for free and delivered £2.5 million worth of education. Alumnae have gone on to work for big companies from Facebook, Twitter and Thoughtworks to The Guardian, Accenture and NASA, with many sticking around to become volunteer instructors on the programme.

Code First Girls today launches its 20:20 campaign, expanding its range of free courses to teach 20,000 women how to code by 2020. That means raising £1.5 million in the next three years, which comes to £75 per woman. It might sound like an ambitious goal, but for CEO Amali de Alwis, it’s not just important to teach more women how to code – it’s downright essential. As de Alwis tells me over the phone: “We want to flood the tech industry with women.”

But the path to finding a tech career wasn’t simple for de Alwis. In fact, it was a constant battle between a training in science and technology, and opting for creative subjects. She wanted to do both.

“When I was a kid, I had Barbie dolls and I had electronic sets,” she tells me. “For me, it didn’t matter if I was making a waistcoat for my dolls and having to cut out little patterns, or if I was making a radio set or building alarms or bugging my room – it was all fun.”

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(Above: Code First Girls CEO CEO Amali de Alwis. Credit: Lauren Maccabee)

Right up until her twenties, de Alwis was still wrangling with the left-right-brain dichotomy. She undertook her Bachelors in Engineering and then jumped straight into a second degree in Shoe Design. While on the surface this sounds like a huge jump to make, she tells me it’s not really.

“Deeply ironically, I pretty much did the same degree twice,” she says. “Young women don’t realise that coding and programming is creative. Whether you’re engineering planes or shoes, you’re going through all of the exact same types of design processes in both.”

If that’s the case, then how do we get girls into coding and technical jobs without them feeling like they’re sacrificing the creative half of the equation? According to data from UCAS, there were 26,845 university students accepted onto a computer science university course in 2016. Only a tiny proportion of those students were women – just 14%, a mere 3,775 women. Can you imagine how the UK landscape could change if 20,000 more women found their way into tech-related coding jobs? So where does that begin?

“It has to begin with education”

“It has to begin with education, with schools,” de Alwis tells me. “Computer-science jobs are such new roles, schools just aren’t advising women about them.”

People from all walks of life have done courses with Code First Girls and switched to a job in the tech industry. As in de Alwis’ own educational experience, schools are still regularly pressuring students to pursue two distinct strands. It’s an either-or situation: “You either take three STEM subjects at A-level or you take three creative subjects.”

Additionally, the government could be doing more. The recent budget announcement in November has been promising, with a pledge to treble the amount of trained computer-science teachers to 12,000, but de Alwis’ thoughts on the matter are sobering. “The challenge with school changes made by government is that they can often end up tied to the party in power, and then they simply get dropped when the government changes,” she says. “It’s vital for women to be involved in tech. It’s so important as tech jobs are the future.”

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(Above: Code First Girls alumna Aseel Mustafa. Credit: Code First Girls)

In 2007, women made up 10% of programmers and software-development professionals in the UK. While that’s a small amount, the UK saw an even bigger dip this year, with the Office for National Statistics reporting that only 3.9% of women are in those jobs today. When I ask her why the number has decreased, de Alwis explains that while the reasons are complex, much of it can be attributed to the same reasons there are so few women on computer-science university courses.

“It’s unfortunate. You would have hoped it would have gone up, but when you’re working with such small figures, all that matters is that we need to increase it,” she presses.

If the supposed Brexit brain drain occurs, we’re going to need people, both men and women, to plug the gap. In a report from consultancy firm KPMG UK, one million EU nationals are considering leaving the UK. Of these, 52% are EU workers on higher incomes, 50% have PhDs and 39% have postgraduate degrees.

“We’re looking down the barrel of the gun with Brexit. There’s this sense of apprehension and uncertainty,” says de Alwis. “If Brexit is going to make you want to move your business, then that’s going to be a challenge for the UK. Whether it’s women or men, it’s always going to be better for the UK to have more people who know how to code.”

“Whether it’s women or men, it’s always going to be better for the UK to have more people who know how to code.”

How is Code First Girls going to raise £1.5 million in such a short time period and achieve its goal of teaching 20,000 women how to code by 2020? The initiative is on the hunt for partners to commit to three years of funding. For anyone else looking to contribute, you can sponsor a place on the course for a young woman, which costs £75, or you can make a general donation.

“We’re really excited about this. We genuinely think we can make a difference, not just for the women that we’re working with, but for the landscape of the UK economy,” de Alwis says.

With influential names such as Baroness Lane-Fox, Google’s Sarah Drinkwater and Dame Stephanie Shirley supporting the campaign as ambassadors, Code First Girls hopes to make a difference and show how the UK economy can benefit with 20,000 more women who have the skills needed to take on tech jobs. With Brexit looming, those women could provide some stability to a sector that desperately needs it.

“For a lot of the people who’ve come and joined us, in whatever capacity that is, they stay with us,” adds de Alwis. “They stay with us because they see the passion, they see how incredible these young women are, and they see what an impact they can make in helping these young women get these careers.”

If you want to get involved with the 20:20 campaign, visit the company’s website for more information.

Lead photo credit: Selina Pavan

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