The perfect place to start as a woman in tech – the Catalyst Academy

by Aleisha Amohia

The last thing a young woman expects when she’s walking into a technology-related course or workshop, is to be in a majority group. This was the case for the 17 (from 22 students) of high school students who identify as women, that attended the Catalyst Open Source Academy 2018. This is not only exciting for Catalyst as mentors, being given the opportunity to work with young women, but also allows us to pave a pathway for these women and encourage them to pursue a career in the STEM sector (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths).

Aleisha Amohia - portrait photo

As a female Digital Technologies student, after being conditioned by movies and media into believing that women aren’t supposed to be programmers or computer scientists, walking into a room full of like-minded women is exciting. When you’re good at something that you predominantly see men famously doing, it’s an inspiring moment when you are in a room full of other female IT enthusiasts, who then become your friends or mentors.

The Academy allows young women to look up to and relate to their mentors. They see themselves in their mentors and suddenly, the difficult stuff doesn’t seem so daunting, and their career ideas become goals. Being able to work with other like-minded, talented women makes young students feel comfortable and safe. They are open to taking risks and feel confident to explore trickier tasks.

I was a student in the Academy in 2014 - when the gender split was thirteen females and eleven males. I learned a huge amount about open source software and used programming languages I’d never seen before. I found a mentor, a project I love, and a group of new friends. In fact, I also enjoyed the work and the environment so much that I kept returning to Catalyst. Now a third-year Computer Science university student, four years post-Academy, I’m still at Catalyst developing the same software I worked on in project week – Koha.

Koha is an open source library management system. This year, a group of 5 women made up the Koha team for the Academy – this was the group I mentored and worked with throughout the week. Each of them had huge success in the Academy, collectively writing or testing 70+ patches. The students were open to asking questions, helping each other, taking on hard tasks and genuinely enjoying the work. Each day they learned something new that they were able to apply to a later bug for a patch. It was heart-warming to see the shared satisfaction and encouragement as they completed each new patch.

I believe the Academy is wonderful for young women interested in pursuing STEM study or careers for many reasons. Firstly, it provides a space for women interested in tech to meet other women interested in tech, peers and mentors. Creating a network is so important for that sense of belonging and support – this is something that women often find the tech industry sorely lacks. It creates an opportunity for students to start making connections for future internships and work experience.

Secondly, it exposes young women to software tools and concepts that won’t force them to keep up with any national standards or measures that weren’t built with them in mind. It allows them to try new things in a place where they can ask for help. The students are encouraged and given the freedom to apply the skills they learn and explore further. They finish the Academy with new skills and ideas, feeling truly inspired - something which may not have happened if completing only the regular school IT curriculum.

Thirdly, the Academy succeeds in that vital task of keeping STEM learning exciting and fun. The students leave wanting to know more and learn more – enabling and encouraging this excitement as a mentor is really rewarding.

Throughout the week friendships are made, patches are pushed to master, we have pizza lunch, partake in intensive workshops, use a terminal (making you feel like a ‘hacker’), design graphics in GIMP, while engaging with passionate mentors and teachers. As an ex-Academy female student, I can say with confidence that it is the perfect starting base for a thrilling, rewarding career in tech.

The Academy was instrumental in my decision to study computer science at university and it was an awesome opportunity to work with young women to encourage and inspire them to do the same. If you want to learn new skills, feel empowered and inspired, and leave with new friends, then I thoroughly recommend it to every female high school student interested in Digital Technologies. Join the journey of being a woman in tech – from someone who knows a lot about it, it’s great.