Diversity within a workforce is recognised to be hugely beneficial and something that companies are increasingly striving to build. Not only in terms of gender and ethnicity, but also in aspects like age, disability and neurodiversity.
It’s no secret that instituting diversity is an issue that the software industry is still grappling with. One approach to solving this challenge is to encourage more young people to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects at school, and to go on to pursue a career in the software industry. There are a large number of excellent projects doing just that, a couple of which I have enjoyed taking part in over the past few years.
Many of these projects don’t take up much of your time, for example the STEM Ambassador Programme, which asks volunteers to complete a minimum of one activity per year. That level of commitment is absolutely achievable for lots of people (there are about 37,000 STEM Ambassadors). This means you get a wider range of volunteers who can showcase a wider range of careers. And the young people taking part are more likely to find an ambassador that they can relate to.
In some respects, the pandemic has made it easier to get involved in programmes like this. Many activities have moved online, cutting out travel time for the volunteers and opening up a wider range of activities to get involved with. But, this goes hand in hand with the drawback of not seeing people face-to-face. When presenting virtually, I found I couldn’t rely on nonverbal communication as much as I normally would and so have had to adjust my interaction style to compensate.
Regardless of whether they’re online or face-to-face, I hugely enjoy taking part in these initiatives. So in case you want to get involved, here are my top tips for running a STEM outreach session.
- Use gender neutral language – it can take a little while to get into the habit of doing this but it is really important when it comes to breaking down stereotypes. I listened to a talk recently where the presenter referred to people working in the software industry as "coding guys" and was surprised how jarring it sounded to me now.
- Use diverse images – take care to represent minority groups in any images or videos used during your session. Again, this helps to challenge stereotypes and allows young people to picture themselves in the roles you are describing.
- Adjust to suit the platform - when running an online session, it might feel unnatural to be sitting at your desk (would you be sitting behind a desk if you were there in person?). So try putting your laptop somewhere you can stand up and move around a bit. But do try to stay in view!
- Highlight the real life impact of your job on the audience’s lives – this is a great tip I picked up from some training provided by the WISE campaign. You’ll probably find you need to generalise your job a bit in order to do this. I tend to use a simple cyber security angle rather than anything more specific to SOC.OS – “wouldn’t it have been awful if your school got hacked and you couldn’t do any work online while you were learning from home?”. By thinking about the impact of your job in this way, it’s likely you’ll end up explaining it in a way that really helps the audience’s understanding.
- Paint the right picture of yourself - represent yourself as a confident professional (without going too far and coming across as big-headed or unrelatable). The Google #IamRemarkable initiative provides some great training around celebrating achievement that got me to really reflect on this point. Remember - you’re acting as a role model.
- Be honest – sort of the flip side to the previous tip. Don’t gloss over the bad stuff. It’s good to talk about difficulties you’ve encountered during your career. In particular, I like to highlight that it's OK to not know what job you want to do when you’re young and to just follow what you enjoy. There are many different pathways into STEM careers, and there’s certainly not a one-size-fits all solution to finding yours.
And finally, it can be daunting talking to a big group of (often deadpan) faces. Or, worse still, no faces at all if the school computer doesn’t have a camera! But even if there’s just one person in that group whose eyes are opened to more career opportunities, it’s been worth it.