Earlier this week my nine-year-old niece challenged me to a coding competition. We would both design a bird feeder using BBC micro:bits and arts and crafts materials, and my brother-in-law would choose a winner. The week before, the challenge was to design an accessible doorbell. And the week before that was a traffic light. Those of you familiar with Microsoft’s MakerChampion challenges should recognise that we’re quickly working our way through! And for those of you who are unfamiliar with the projects, MakerChampion challenges are a series of activities that encourage young people to use micro:bit to respond to real world challenges with the aim of inspiring young children to pursue STEM careers so we can address the digital skills gap.
When we first launched the MakerChampion challenges two years ago, my niece could not have been less interested. My attempts to engage her usually failed, and the micro:bit stocking present was relegated to under her bed for over a year. Drama was life for this seven-year-old, and no charm or coaxing would change that.
However, as luck would have it, I managed to find a way to combine the two – drama and coding – when the latest tranche of MakerChampion projects needed an actress to face the campaign. While the lure of a real life filming experience was what actually got my niece to Microsoft UK headquarters one Saturday morning; it was the resulting discovery that coding is fun that has since filled my weekends with questions about technology, requests for Minecraft games, and coding competitions.
Young girls’ perceptions of STEM
One possible reason for this shift in attitude is that my niece was finally able to see coding in a creative context. By placing the micro:bit (which, admittedly, looks slightly baffling in isolation) in the wider context of creating a wearable pedometer, or personalising trainers with flashing lights, she was able to see that everyday things she considered ‘creative’ are actually powered by technology. And that developing technology through coding can be fun.
A recent Microsoft report found that 91% of the 1,000 girls and young women interviewed described themselves as creative and stressed the importance of creativity in any future career. But very few of those same girls believed that STEM subjects were creative. As a result, few were interested in finding out more about any STEM subject let alone pursuing a career in one.When placed in the wider context of the UK’s growing digital skills shortage, the fact that girls do not see STEM subjects as a viable career is something the tech industry needs to urgently address. More than 500,000 highly skilled workers will be needed to fill digital roles by 2022. That is three times the number of UK computer science graduates from the past ten years – only 5% of which have been female.
Closing the digital skills gap
This growing skills gap was one of the reasons Microsoft UK launched its national digital skills programme in 2017. An initiative to provide free courses and resources for everyone, whether they are digital novices or IT professionals. The Digital Skills Programme aims to accelerate the rate at which citizens, both young and old, can develop the digital skills and qualifications they need.
But closing the skills gap requires the tech sector to improve its talent diversity. This is a topic close to the heart of Microsoft UK’s CEO, Cindy Rose. She talks a lot about the economic and commercial benefits relating to increasing gender diversity in the workplace, citing research that suggests that this could add as much as 11% to the world’s GDP by 2025. While an organisation with 30% female leadership could increase profitability by 15%. 
Encouraging young girls to think about STEM careers
Improving the gender balance in technology roles is critical but requires us to think outside the box when it comes engaging young girls. We need to challenge their perceptions and show that technology can be a creative career.
Microsoft’s vision is to increase the number of girls considering digital careers and to support those young women through their working lives. The MakerChampion challenges and #MakeWhatsNext video series aim to engage girls at a younger age. While DigiGirlz camps and the Digital Skills Programme equip young women with the tools and mentors they need to succeed. Our apprenticeship programme provides young students with an alternative route into a technical role too, combining hands-on learning experiences with qualification-led training to help them develop the digital skills they need to succeed in the future of work.
To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we will be equipping our employees to deliver MakerChampion sessions at various schools across the UK to help inspire young girls to pursue STEM subjects and consider a career in technology. But we can’t face the digital skills gap alone. We need your help too. Why not organise a session at a school near you?
About the author
Sarah is the National Skills Lead at Microsoft UK, working with schools, partners, and customers to help address the technical skills shortage in the UK. She is focused on helping to grow the talent pipeline by encouraging young people to think about careers in the tech industry.