On International Girls in ICT Day, the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is highlighting the need to promote technology career opportunities for girls and women in the world’s fastest growing sector. To celebrate the day, we share an interview with our Head of Digital Transformation at Publicjobs.ie, who shares her career trajectory and her advice to any girls or women interested in a career in STEM.

 Q1. This year's International Day of Girl’s in ICT theme is Access & Safety. The International Telecommunication Union and their partners work together to develop solutions and ideas for lowering barriers to access and improving safety online for girls and young women. What are your thoughts on the issues facing young women and girls around this?

Technology and the internet provide access for girls to knowledge and perspectives beyond what they learn in their families, schools, and communities. Unfortunately, the digital world also exposes girls to a whole world of abuse, false information, and misogyny that is amplified and targeted online. Research suggests that online sexual and gender-based abuse is under-reported but is on the rise globally. As we integrate technology further into our everyday lives, it is essential that everyone, but particularly young women and girls are safe online. Much more work is needed to tackle gender stereotypes, raise awareness, increase education, and provide safer, more affordable, and easier access to technology for women and girls.

Young women in particular need to be better educated about protecting themselves online, safeguarding personal data, dealing with unwanted approaches, sharing images and harassment. But it cannot only be on women to keep themselves safe online. There needs to be increased public-private cooperation to tackle harmful content and conduct online. Governments need to work collaboratively and across borders to regulate the online world while balancing protecting free expression. Online forums and social media platforms need robust moderation and community standards that prevent the publishing or sharing of abusive or exploitative materials and misinformation.

And through all of this, staying true to the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, girls need to be included in decision-making and policy-development to ensure their realities are reflected and the changes have real impact.

Q.2 What would you say to encourage girls and young women to pursue STEM education?

When you think of the leaders in technology, do you visualise a few well-known men? In fact, women used to be the leaders in Computer Science.

Ada Lovelace, from the 1800’s, is widely thought of as the first computer programmer. Grace Hopper is credited with teaching computers to ‘talk’ in the 1940’s. The first programable computer was programmed in 1946 by 6 women. In 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine declared “this is the age of the computer girls”. Many women were involved in the development of the Apollo spacecraft’s onboard flight programme that enabled the moon-landing and if you use GPS for directions, you can thank a mathematician called Dr. Gladys West.

There is an excellent podcast on NPR's Planet Money where Caitlin Kenney and Steve Henn discuss why computer science suddenly became such a male dominated field. They attribute it to the fact that the first personal computers were almost exclusively marketed to boys and men in the 1980s. This coincided with the emergence of ‘computer geek culture’ where movies, TV and popular culture reinforced the stereotype that computers were for boys. Computer programming, which was previously considered unglamorous clerical work, suddenly became coveted and highly skilled labour so the women were no longer at the front of the queue.

I would say to any girls and young women considering STEM education – don’t be put off by any false narrative that boys are better at it or that it is a male field of study. History proves that women and girls have the same capabilities to work in STEM as men and boys and if you are interested in STEM and have a flair for it then don’t let anyone or anything discourage you.

Q.3 What would you say to inspire girls and young women to work in STEM careers?

 ‘Big Tech’ has legitimately been getting a lot of scrutiny in recent times and we are increasingly questioning the impact of technology and other leading global corporations on society.

It is important to also remember though, that technology and the field of STEM can have a hugely positive impact. Technology has delivered positive improvements in so many areas of our lives including the health, education, communications and research sectors, environment protection, smart cities and accessibility. All areas of our lives are impacted by developments in STEM. The iPhone was only launched 15 years ago and today we have robot hoovers, we can programme our lights and heating while we commute, and we can watch TV with friends and family who are scattered across the globe. Imagine what we could achieve in another 15 years!

STEM can be a really rewarding career path, enabling you to positively deliver change in the world. It is a career path that provides so many opportunities for you to try new things and explore new ideas. It can be a very creative field of study. STEM enables us to do more with less and improve our lives in the process. STEM is a fundamental foundation for innovation, and we need the female perspective fully represented amongst our innovators and thought leaders. It is essential that the diversity of society is represented in the design of future innovations and technologies. With a career in STEM, you can positively influence change in the world.

A career in ICT offers you unlimited possibilities alongside the opportunity to work with teams of problem solvers, innovators, and creative thinkers. I can’t think of a better sell than that.

Q4. What was your career path to your current role?

I have always been a very logical person and I love problem solving. When I was about 13, I did a ‘women in engineering’ summer camp which solidified my love of STEM.

At University I studied Computer Science, Mathematics and Linguistics. I wasn’t exactly sure what career path this choice of study would lead to, but I knew from school that I loved maths and science subjects. I wanted a practical career choice that used those skills, so computer science was a really good field of study for me. During college I was drawn toward software development. I like how applicable it is, there’s a human element to it because you are solving real life challenges with the end-users in mind.

After college I worked for several software consultancy firms. I worked in large multinationals as well as smaller software houses, developing digital solutions for a range of sectors including financial, insurance, aviation and health. It was very fast-paced and challenging. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot, especially how to think on your feet in front of clients! After about 12 years I wanted to move into an in-house development team. I was attracted to the opportunity to really understand and get under the surface of the challenges your business faces and to take a long-term view. I moved into the public sector and have worked as part of in-house development teams in the public sector and Irish Civil Service since then.

Throughout my career I have continued to develop my technical skills and progressed to more senior roles. I did a Master’s in Project Management because of the frequency of ICT projects that run over on either time or budget. I also studied Change Management to better understand the people-side of delivering digital projects.

I have over 20 years of experience in ICT roles. I started my career just when businesses were preparing for the expected disruption of Y2K. I worked on teams developing the digital solutions to transition organisations from paper and in-person to online services. I was there for the mass adoption of mobile technology and the recent mass move to online services and remote working  in response to the pandemic. The world has been in the midst of digital disruption throughout my career and it’s only getting more fast-paced.

The opportunities that digital transformation offers are incredibly exciting. I love working in ICT and particularly in public sector roles where I can get involved in delivering citizen-centric digital services that improve the lives of people and businesses. It is that potential that excites me about working in ICT within the Irish civil service.

Q5. What would you say to girls considering a career in ICT?

On my first day of college studying computer science the course director warned us that on the day we graduated our skills would already be out of date because technology develops so fast. ICT is constantly developing, so you will need to be excited by that and willing to always work to keep your skills up to date. A career in ICT is a commitment to lifelong learning.

But I say, definitely go for it! Do not let yourself be put off because of any suggestion that ICT is not for girls. Look around and you will see there are lots of women working in ICT and we want more to get involved, so come and join us. It is a lot of fun.

The field of ICT can open so many career paths for you. The classmates who I studied computer science with are now working all over the world and across a huge range of careers. If you are interested in ICT stay focused on it, it offers the opportunity for a dynamic and rewarding career, and you honestly can’t imagine now what your job will look like in 10, let alone 30, years from today. That is really exciting!