Seeing is believing: why role models matter in tech

by Sue Nieland, Head of Education, the Tech Partnership


First year philosophy students are often sent off to write an essay on ‘the missing shade of blue’ –  the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s way of illustrating the possibility of visualising something you’ve never seen or experienced.

Outside that rarefied world, it seems that children and young people have a great deal of difficulty making that leap: seeing themselves in roles they haven’t had direct experience of. It’s this that drives aspirational career choices like doctor, teacher or vet – everyone’s been at school, or met their family GP, so there’s a sense of knowing what someone in that role looks like and does every day. Even for more distant professions like lawyer, accountant or forensic scientist, there are TV portrayals that give an insight (however glamorised) into these jobs.

But for tech roles, there’s not much on offer. If you don’t know someone who’s already in the industry, it all seems very opaque. What does a software engineer do all day? How would it feel to be a UX specialist or a cyber security expert? Even the language seems impenetrable. For girls, this is particularly true – the lack of women in the tech profession is self-perpetuating.

In the Tech Partnership’s recent research into the shortage of women in the tech industry, two women who are making successful digital careers specifically referenced their fathers as the driving force behind their choices. The fact that their fathers knew their way around the industry gave these women a priceless insight not just into the sort of work they could be doing, but also into how to get there – which firms to apply to, whether to choose an apprenticeship or a degree, how to navigate the application process.

Given that we can’t find a different parent for every child, getting real-life role models into the classroom has to be a vitally important way of showing all young people that jobs in tech are achievable, and could be part of their decision set. If those role models are female, so much the better – just by their presence, women have a powerful effect in breaking down misconceptions. And younger role models can also be particularly effective: someone in his or her first job is more relatable for students than an older figure – even someone of thirty can seem remote to a GCSE class.

So where to find these digital role models? Parents or older siblings are a natural resource – many schools actively request volunteers from within their immediate contact group. And local businesses are often keen to contribute: if you have a local tech company, large or small, get in touch and make a specific request – you’ll almost certainly get a warm response. And there are a number of organisations that specialise in providing speakers and role models in schools: contact Founders4Schools, STEMNET, the Careers and Enterprise Company or Inspiring the Future, and they’ll find you an enthusiastic TechFuture Ambassador.

It’s often said that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Role models make sure that your learners can see, and that can make all the difference.