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“Don’t wait around for a mentor to find you”: Interview with the CEO of Code First Girls, Anna Brailsford

It comes as little surprise that the tech sector is dominated by men. In a 2019 study exploring diversity, the percentage of women in the core-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce remained at just 24%. While the number marks an improvement on previous years, it highlights that there’s still a long way to go in improving tech’s stark gender divide – but one organization is striving to change that.

Founded in 2012, Code First Girls aims to diversify the tech scene by providing women with coding courses, career development events, and helping companies develop more women-friendly recruitment and retention policies. In 2020 alone, they even reached the impressive milestone of teaching 20,000 women how to code.

We sat down with Anna Brailsford, CEO of the multi-award winning social enterprise, to learn more about the success of the programmes, how men can support their women colleagues, and what’s next for the Code First Girls.

Congratulations on your recent achievement of teaching 20,000 women to code! What do you think has made this programme so uniquely successful?

Thank you. We’re thrilled to have been able to deliver on our promise. But we are just getting started. 

We have our community to thank. It’s fantastic to see such a growing demand in women interested in upskilling in tech and learning how to code early on in their career. However there is much more to be done, as women still make up just 17% of the tech workforce in the UK.

We have also made huge strides in getting more women into technology, through partnering with over 50 universities and 65 businesses — notably Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, KKR, OVHcloud and Trainline — to run coding, mentorship and upskilling programmes. Partnering with this coalition of companies has been crucial in achieving this milestone.

Can you tell us a little about these partnerships are so important to the programme? 

The growth of the Code First Girls community, and the variety of courses on offer, could not have been achieved without partnerships and collaboration. They also play a crucial role in bringing education and the tech industry closer together – which is more important than ever in this time of social and economic uncertainty.

Through these partnerships, we’re able to leverage and tap into their global resources, network and portfolio to provide operational and logistical support for the programme’s roll-out of community courses. 

Our work with partners is split into three key areas; hiring, engaging and upskilling. 

Partnerships allow us to provide training, selection and placement of female tech talent in these companies. On average, 90% of women are successfully placed in partner organisations. We partnered with BT to deliver a customised coding curriculum to select, train and hire female candidates from our community.

By connecting brands with the Code First Girls community, through targeted events, sponsorship and employee engagement initiatives, companies are able to improve their employer brand among women and give back to the community. For instance, Vodafone are determined to become the best employer for women by 2025, and are therefore working with us to empower employees to deliver a global coding programme in local communities.

And finally upskilling. We work with companies to help empower their teams to build a website, create an app, get to grips with data or become a mentor for women in the workplace, through dedicated courses. We are facing an urgent IT skills shortage in the UK, and with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, upskilling women in teams will be one of the most effective ways to tackle this. 

How does intersectionality influence the programme in Code First Girls? 

On a mission to bridge the tech skills gap and achieve gender parity, intersectionality plays a large role in everything we do at Code First Girls. 

We are proud of the diversity we represent and will always strive to help improve this outlook for the industry. To put this into perspective, 53% of our community are from a BAME background, 17% are Black Heritage and our community represents over 58 nationalities.

We regard increasing diversity as the biggest challenge for tech companies today, and it is one of the strengths of the Code First Girls community. 

We also strive to enable social mobility in the tech sector, offering opportunities to women who come from different disciplines, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. 27% of our community have been eligible for Free School Meals.

You’ve spoken about the importance of role models in STEM previously. How can women in tech find and approach mentors to guide them on their journey into a tech career? 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and slightly lost, embarking on a journey into tech. Mentors are an invaluable source of wisdom, experience and relationships. 

Tap into webinars or virtual events to scope out inspirational mentors. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to drop someone you admire a friendly LinkedIn note to see if they’d be up for sharing any tips.

Don’t wait around for a mentor to find you. The women in the tech community are vibrant and welcoming, and when you’re in a male-dominated industry, it’s more important than ever to forge those links beyond your direct network. One day, you can return the favour and mentor another up-and-comer.

Passion and knowledge should be your key drivers when starting a career in technology. It’s a broad and varied industry, so focus on an area where your strengths lie and own it. Be open to taking advice, upskilling and learning from others. 

At Code First Girls, we are committed to actively investing in developing the community network and access through its mentorship programme to build confidence and facilitate career paths, targeting imposter syndrome. This is fundamental to supporting women beyond the hiring stage, as it’s estimated 90% of women in the UK experience imposter syndrome at work. This is more important than ever in a remote workplace, to empower women and ensure their roles and ability to focus on them are protected. 

Similarly, the importance of allyship isn’t to be overlooked. What do you believe men can do to support and uplift their women colleagues in tech? 

I think the first step to equality in the workplace is understanding that there is no need to compare and compete with coworkers; in the booming tech sector, there is space for everyone. I’d like to see more men mentoring women, and step-up to be champions of diversity themselves. It’s important to learn to celebrate your strengths and champion your coworkers too, while working to address things you find challenging. 

Finally, after an incredibly successful year (in the most unusually challenging circumstances!) what’s next for Code First Girls? 

It’s clear that we’re not slowing down; with plans to double our community of women in technology in 2021, in an effort to close the growing skills gap in the UK. 

As part of our new strategy, we are working with more UK employers than ever before, across a range of industries, to develop twelve week nano degree programmes, which specifically train women for jobs in software and data. We will also offer a breadth of short and accessible online courses, or MOOCs (massive open online courses), designed to impart technical skills, confidence or career discovery. As well as classes to teach coding fundamentals in web development, Python or data. We’ll also continue to offer our incredibly popular career kickstarter 8 week courses for free to candidates across our vast university network and beyond.

Over the last few months, Code First Girls has also been working to help women who have been displaced by COVID-19 redundancies or entering a tough graduate market to reskill and find employment. Our priority will continue to be to educate women and help them to achieve careers at a time of deep economic and social uncertainty.

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Floraidh Clement
Floraidh Clement
Floraidh is a Scottish writer and social media manager, based in Berlin and working within its vibrant startup scene. Areas of interest include travel, fashion and eco tech. She’s particularly fascinated by the human side of entrepreneurship, and how startups are adapting to the rise of of conscious consumerism.

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