hannah dee

How can tech companies attract more women graduates?

Employers who want to change the gender ratio within their workforce have some difficult problems to solve. First amongst these problems is the size of the pool you’re fishing from: there just aren’t that many computer science women to choose from, so finding women who come ready for the workforce can be hard. Obviously you can look outside of the computing grad population – either look for non-grads and apprentices, or look for a broader range of degree subjects – but being a computer science lecturer I’m pretty convinced of the value of a computing degree. And many of the employers we talk to like computing grads too.

So, looking specifically at companies who want to employ computer science graduates there seems to be a real push to employ more women at the moment. I’ve been called by two big name employers in the last couple of months, and I’ve been contacted by a recent grad working in recruitment at a third big name consultancy, and the stalls we have at the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium are getting more and more popular each year.

We have an alumni group on Facebook full of women who’ve been to the Lovelace in the past, many of whom are now in grad jobs. In order to find out what kinds of events and recruitment strategies they’d find interesting, I decided to ask outright. There were a couple of suggestions (CV workshops and women-only assessment centres) from companies, and other suggestions came from the students themselves. Generally, the thread was quite interesting.

  • You have to get your adverts checked over by someone who’s not a guy. A lot of tech firms (particularly smaller ones) have a bit of a macho, brogrammer culture, and job ads which ask for rock-star programmers who are happy to work long hours, drink beer, and play computer games are appealing to a small subset of the universe of possible employees. If you really want that kind of employee that’s fine, I guess, but you might as well stop pretending that you’re bothered about diversity.
  • There was broad agreement that the students would like honest feedback and application support: CV workshops can be useful, but so can interview practice and mock assessment centre practice. Companies who are willing to provide training events, with decent feedback, and who can give tips on applications (particularly applications to that company, if it’s a good fit) would definitely be of interest.
  • The idea of women-only assessment centres got a mixed response. Lots of women don’t like events or strategies which are exclusively targeted at one gender.
  • The impression I got was that more balanced (less macho) assessment centres would be a good thing. This could mean women-led assessment centres, and assessment centres where there were balanced teams during teamwork exercises, would be better than outright women-only sessions. It’s true that there’s something odd about being the only woman in a group when you’re being assessed on groupwork (guys are statistically more likely to interrupt and take over) and anecdotally, this seems like it does happen fairly often in company assessment centres. Employers can get around this by having women facilitators1, ensuring that for group exercises there are balanced sets of people where possible (it’s better to have a bunch of all guy groups and a couple of 50-50 groups, for example, than have each group with just one woman in it), and making it clear that they’re taking this kind of thing into account in the job ad.
  • Offer industrial year placements and summer jobs to students in lower years; this gives both company and student a chance to see what it’s like actually working for a particular employer. There’s less of a scary commitment on both sides, and you really will get a feel for what a student can achieve.
  • There was a real interest in events that give a feel for the culture of a work place. Tours of the workplace. Meeting people who work there. Chatting to real engineers, preferably women, in an informal setting, is also a really useful thing to offer. Seeing how people work together in teams and how communication happens in the workplace is interesting to some of the women students & grads. One person suggested that actually doing some kind of activity (maybe a quiz?) in teams to see how people really worked together would be a useful way of finding out what working in the place was going to be like. I think that coming after “the year of the Tableflip”, in which technology workplace culture in general has seen a lot of bad press, students are thinking more and more about cultural fit with a company. If the employer doesn’t have any women engineers who can chat to applicants … why is that?
  • And finally get a stall at the Lovelace. At the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium we have a bunch (by which I mean “over 100”) of great women students, all of whom have chosen to give up a day from their vacation time in order to come to a computing conference. Employers who come along get to have a conversation with the students directly. To find out more about this option, talk to me:-)

Obviously there’s more to a diverse workforce than just getting people in the door in the first place (support and retention is really important, and you need to consider what happens when people take a career break) but if you don’t get the women through the door you can’t even start to address the problem. Hopefully this post will help a couple of employers to make their recruitment practices more appealing.

If you want to know more about this kind of stuff, check out Reena Jewell at geekEquality.com – she’s based in Southampton and has done some surveys on what women undergrads want in terms of tech careers.

Many thanks are due to the women students who chatted to me about this topic, both virtually and IRL.

1 obviously, women can be biased too, and if your workplace is entirely male there’s something dishonest about having mixed assessment centres.

International women’s day|week

For International Women’s Day, the Athena Swan team at Aberystwyth put on a series of events over the course of the preceding week. I was off to London for a conference so helped organise an event on the Monday before jetsetting off to The Smoke (if you can call travelling via Arriva Trains Wales “jetsetting”). Thanks to all the speakers, to my co-organiser Carina Fearnley (who did most of the hard organisational work) and to Computer Science in Aberystwyth for sponsoring the evening (paying for amplification and tech setup). We had about 70 people there, I think, and there were a few more watching on the internet livestream.

The idea of Monday’s event was that we’d have a series of talks looking at women and science, from pre-school and girls toys right through the school and education pipeline up to professorial science. Turns out the professor had to drop out (something important came up) but the rest of us did short talks, and my co-organiser Carina Fearnley made some last-minute adjustments to her slides to cover some of his content.

First up, I spoke about girl’s toys and science and why, in my opinion, Pink Stinks


Next was Dr Rachel Horsley on school science and girls, who took as her starting point a famously cheesy video from the EU, called “Science, it’s a Girl Thing”. I’m not going to link to it – it’s awful! Rachel spoke about the way in which the concept “girl” is constructed, and how this might affect such a campaign.


Grace Burton, our students’ union’s education officer (did I get the apostroph’es right?) spoke about undergraduate experience, looking at women in science and the broader picture for undergraduate women. Props to Grace for tackling some major issues and presenting a really well thought out argument.


Finally, Dr Carina Fearnley talked about the Leaky Pipeline, and the way in which pressures on career (particularly at the early career/post-doc stage) can stack up against women in science.

We then had a break for the bar, and the results of the Athena Swan Women in Science photo contest. This was won by a superb picture from Ramona Tapi, a third year computer science student. Here’s the pic:

After the break there was a panel debate where the audience could join in and comment on issues around women and science : I’m not going to put up the video for that bit, you’ll just have to take my word for it that the discussion was lively and people really joined in. One phrase which seems to resonate is something I heard Rebecca George say once, when talking about tech:

A profession that’s better for women is better for all

I think that quote applies just as much to the broader sphere of science as it does to IT and computing careers. The stuff that’s important – flexible working, not being treated like shit, decent pay, equality of opportunity, support – is important to all genders. How we go about ensuring this is a hard, unsolved problem. But there seems to be some effort being made, some acknowledgement that there is a problem there, and some willingness to try.

On a nerdy note: this was the first talk I had a go at live-streaming and it worked really well. About 25 people watched the livestream at some point whilst the event was going on, and Youtube canned the stream for later usage. My excellent MPhil student Matt Pugh recorded the videos you can see above, which are better quality than the live stream, but it was really useful to a) be able to broadcast live (we used Google hangouts via Youtube, and it was easy to set up working first time); and b) to have the event record up on line from the moment it finished. Nice work Google.

Gregynogging

In the last four weeks I’ve been to Gregynog Hall 3 times. Luckily for me it’s a beautiful place – a stately home in the middle of Powys, with superb gardens, and really nice cake. The first visit was with our first year students, who we take there every year for a team building weekend. The second visit was with our second year students who’re going out on industrial year. And the final visit was Monday and Tuesday of this week for a staff awayday. Here’s a picture of dawn mist over the fields in the grounds:

I think it’s great that we take the students there – the first year weekend is an intense series of team-building exercises, designed to stretch the students in terms of their interactions, their computational skills, their presentation skills and their critical thinking. We get them doing indoor stuff, outdoor stuff, and creative stuff. With the second years, it’s more about employability, so we have actual people from industry in to do mock interviews, we have an “assessment centre” type exercise, and we try to prepare them for interview and application situations before they go out to do a sandwich year. The staff awayday was more strategic, but still very useful (actually, I found it surprisingly useful and positive – I’m usually kind of cynical about these kinds of events). So all in all it has been a pleasant Gregynogging, but to be honest? I’m now pleased to be home.

Summer holidays

One sure-fire way to get up an academic’s nose is to suggest that we have massive long summer holidays. There’s this misconception that we just sit around relaxing when the students aren’t here – without the normal day to day of teaching and admin, we’re just sat in the coffee room drinking pimms or something. So I thought I’d let you know what a day in the life of a junior academic looks like, during the summer “holidays”. Today I have done the following…

  • Discussed the organisation of one of our first year modules for next year. Should we have randomly allocated tutorials? How should we organise the material? What went well? What could do with a bit of work?
  • Worked on the finance side of a grant application: we have to make sure, when we apply for research money, that it all adds up and makes sense (as well as fitting within any maximum amount decreed by the funding body).
  • Met my PhD student Vaughan, and discussed a conference submission and some future work.
  • Met Alasanne, a PhD student I’m second supervisor for, who’s giving a talk at a conference soon so we wanted to see a trial version.
  • Read through the draft online form for the grant proposal (the one mentioned earlier – by this point, the finances had been confirmed).
  • Helped organise a meeting next week joint between my department and Sports Science to see if there are opportunities for collaboration
  • Send off emails to a couple of potential referees for the grant proposal.
  • Had a read through of the supporting documentation for the grant (comes to about 15 pages of 11pt text) and checked it was OK – spotted a couple of typos, ran the spellchecker, uploaded new versions.
  • Had a chat with my PhD student Max, who’d been working down at the beach (this is not a joke – he is building a balloon-mounted camera to help with the navigation of robot boats!). He was most cheerful – he’d had a successful first balloon flight and had managed to get pictures off the blimp and onto his raspberry pi.
  • Wrote a resit exam question for one of my other first year modules and sent it to the module coordinator.
  • Wrote a quick blog post

Now I’m off to a class at the sports centre which starts at 5, and then I am going to have a weekend of fun by the seaside. Actually – that’s the main difference between in and out of term time: it’s not the business during the week, it’s the fact that over the summer, we’re more likely to get weekends. Which is nice!

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium 2013

The sixth BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium was held at the University of Nottingham, on the 4th April 2013. I can hardly believe that we’re already on number 6! The day featured talks from industry and from academia, a panel session on careers, a poster session of student work, a social, and of course lots of time for networking.

The audience filing in at the start of the day

The talks

We had more talks than usual this year, as the original schedule featured a 1h keynote, but our speaker had to pull out due to family reasons. So Joolz & Gillian stepped in at short notice to do a short talk each, which were both great. This meant the program was really very packed indeed, but I quite like that – if the main complaint on the feedback forms is that there was too much interesting stuff going on, I think we’re doing something right!

  • Natasha Alechina of Nottingham talked about ontologies; how we can formalise a domain, and how we can work out if there are bugs in our formalisation
  • Jemma Chambers of CISCO spoke on her career; what it’s like working in a big company on their graduate program, and talked a lot about why we have to sit at the table
  • Julie Greensmith (also the host!) spoke about artificial immune systems (AIS), and how interdisciplinary work can really pay benefits if you do it properly. Julie came up with the Dendritic Cell Algorithm in AIS; now loads of other people are researching that too. Go Joolz!
  • The last talk before lunch was Gillian Arnold, BCSWomen chair. She spoke about the way tech careers can be really rewarding; she’d asked around her contacts for “the best moment in your career so far”, which ranged from earning LOADS of cash, to getting an MBE, to helping out in developing countries… there are loads of different ways to have an excellent career in tech.
  • After lunch, I spoke about my research into computer vision for plant imaging. I’ve never spoken about my own research at the Lovelace before, as I’m the chair… but as I’d invited Joolz to speak when I ran the Lovelace in Leeds in 2009 she returned the favour and invited me back this year. It was super exciting to be on stage as a researcher as well as in my capacity as a women in computing activist.
  • And finally, the last official talk of the day was given by Milena Nikolic of Google, who talked about how she got into Google, what it’s like to work there, and what she’s worked on so far – search, mobile, Google Play…

In all, a busy schedule with a huge variety of topics. I enjoyed every single talk – even my own:-)

The Poster contest

This year the poster contest was amazingly strong. A lot of the sponsors helped get involved this year, too, which was great – Google speaker Milena Nikolic helped judge the best first year contest, EMC staff helped judge best final year, and Madeleine Field from FDM helped judge the MSc student prize. I’m particularly pleased by this – it gives me a real boost seeing actual recruiters from industry not only supporting the event with sponsorship (which is in itself great), but also engaging with the students and their work. It also confirms what I’ve thought for a few years now – the poster contest standard is amazing: discussing it afterwards with the industrial contacts, they were as impressed as I was with the work. Not just the work, too – students stand by their posters and chat with judges as part of the session, and it’s super impressive meeting so many knowledgeable and eloquent young women who are into computing and technology.

The Google Excellence Award for Best First Year (£500, sponsored by Google, but I expect you’ve guessed that) went to:

  • Roseanna McMahon, of the University of Bath

The second year student poster award, sponsored by the HEA, was so difficult to judge we gave two equal second place awards.

  • First prize (£300) went to Carys Williams of the University of Bath
  • Joint second prize awards (£100 each) went to Heidi Howard of the University of Cambridge, and Jo Dowdall of the University of Dundee

The best final year student poster award was sponsored by EMC, and went to

  • First place (£300): Sia Xin Yun Suzannah of University of Edinburgh
  • Second prize (£200): Dung Kim Hoang Tran of the University of Bath

The best Masters student poster award, sponsored by FDM, was also exceptionally difficult to judge. I can personally confirm that this was very difficult, as it was judged by myself, Amanda Clare, and Maddy from FDM; we spoke with all of the entrants, narrowed it down to four, then to three, then to two… and finally… We decided to split the prize and give two first place awards of £150 each to:

  • Blessing Mbipom of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen
  • Maraim Masoud of University of Southampton

And finally the people’s choice award for best poster as voted for by the attendees (£150, sponsored by Interface3) went to Alexandra Kearney, of the University of Edinburgh

If these women are the future of technology, we’re in safe hands!

The Panel

I didn’t actually get to sit in the panel (although I did choose the lineup). The aim of the panel – and indeed a lot of the aim on the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium – is to show women students that there are loads of different ways to be a successful woman in computing. So on the panel this year we had Lucy Hunt, an independent contractor who arranges her work so she gets 2 months holiday every year (YAY HOLIDAYS!); Gillian Arnold who’s spent 20 years in IBM and who now runs her own company; Jemma Chambers who’s in CISCO and has a young son; and Dr Amanda Clare a lecturer from Aberystwyth. This way, if students are thinking of an academic career, a big company, contracting, or entrepreneurship there’s someone on the panel who’s got experience of that and can provide advice. Whilst the panel was going on I was outside doing the poster contest admin so I can’t really write much about this part, but they were still debating when I got back into the room with the certificates, so it was probably good:-)

Social

The day finished off with a social in the Computer Science Atrium in Nottingham. The social was sponsored by CA Technologies; CA had been with us all day in the employer zone (just by the food) and generally networking with attendees. As people relaxed after the hectic day with a well-deserved glass of wine or juice (and cake, we have to have cake) the atmosphere began to calm down, CA reps chatted with students about their career plans, people got together to take photographs with new friends and old, and Joolz & I agreed it was an most excellent Lovelace.

Dr Joolz & Dr Dee, local chair, speaker, chair and speaker (yes we both spoke) agreeing that it was a most excellent Lovelace whilst grinning like loons.

Thanks

I’d like to thank loads of people…

  • Firstly, without the generous input from Google, who sponsored a student prize and student travel (we pay the fares and if necessary accommodation of all presenting students) we’d not be able to run the event: they’ve been great, sponsoring every colloquium since the first and sending a speaker every year too.
  • Prize sponsors this year were FDM, EMC, The HEA, and Interface3.
  • CA Technologies sponsored the social and had a stall in our Employer Zone
  • VMWare brought a stall to our employer zone
  • Our speakers were all fab (even me:-). Natasha Alechina, Jemma Chambers from CISCO, Gillian Arnold of BCSWomen and Tectre, Julie Greensmith, and Milena Nikolic from Google. Milena Radenkovic from Notts kindly helped keep us all to time and managed the questions.
  • Our panel members featured Jemma and Gillian (who’d spoke earlier) and also Amanda Clare from Aberystwyth, and Lucy Hunt; thanks to all for joining in
  • And finally we had an absolutely brilliant local team this year. Dr Joolz aka Julie Greensmith was our local chair, and she not only helped with lineup, organisation, and just about everything else… she also stepped up to give a talk too at short notice. Thank you Dr Joolz! Dipa Patel was an administrative and organisational superhero, and Maryam Marchenko went above and beyond the call of duty in helping out with all aspects of the day, from stuffing bags to dealing with tesco deliveries of booze for the social.

Thanks!

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Tech job interview experiences

I realised recently that whilst I know quite a bit about job interviews in the academic world (indeed, a little more than I’d like) I am quite in the dark about the situation in industry. So I put a call out on the fabulous BCSWomen list for more information and got a mailbox full of interesting and insightful responses. I’ve collated these into a a PDF that you can find here (suitably anonymised).

The executive summary? Well, if you’re going for a graduate position you can expect a day or more of assessment, which will include an interview of an hour or more and a battery of tests (psychometric, skills, teamwork…). A lot of other jobs will have a two-stage interview, with the first part being a telephone or online interview. On average, interviews are conducted by 3 people. Psychometric and skills tests (e.g., programming) are common. And you can’t assume that any element of the visit/interview experience is entirely informal – the lunch, drinks after, the tour… can all feed back into the process.

But you should read the whole document – there are some excellent pieces of advice from real-life recruiters, and some fascinating anecdotes. If you’re teaching computing students, or are a computing student, or are looking for work in the tech sphere, it could be very useful reading. Aren’t BCSWomen great?

Any further comments or experiences about tech interviews – from either side of the desk – are welcome. I think this informal survey has given me a much better idea of what we’re preparing our students for, but I’m always up for the broader picture so please leave a comment if you’ve got any interesting or relevant (or funny:) tech interview anecdotes.