Why I Didn’t Pursue a STEM Subject and How I Got Back into Coding

By Beverley Newing

Beverley Newing, Programmes Intern at Code First: Girls, reflects on why she stopped coding as a young teenager, the issues she faced in STEM and how she’s now gotten her coding mojo back.

Code First: Girls (CF: G) is a not for profit social enterprise startup with a mission to get more women into technology & entrepreneurship. I work on community programmes there and we offer free coding courses to women to help them get into coding. Over the past 18 months 3000+ participated in one of our courses or events. In telephone interviews I do at CF:G, I often get insights into the crazy gender imbalance in university courses across the country – there often being only 3 women in computer science courses (for some weird reason, it’s always 3) and that only 17% of those in the tech industry are female – and I’ve been wondering why this ever since starting this job. There is a personal story behind why every girl interested in STEM subjects turns to alternative subjects, and so I’ve decided to share my own.

When I was a young teenager, I used to start and tweek the HTML of Invisionfree forums. I loved books, and living on a lonely farm in the middle of nowhere, used to chat to people on a huge online forum instead. I soon realised there were also lots of smaller communities of groups who had created their own forums and before I knew it, I was creating, publicising, customising and managing my own with a group of international friends. I loved this community and the creativity, and was always pestering my mum for more internet time (back then, it was 1.5p per minute through the phone line in the evening!). This world was a home to me in those early teen years.

Despite this hobby, STEM subjects didn’t come easily to me at school. My engineer maths-genius father was disappointed at my choices at GCSE – ICT and languages, not Design Technology. This was a blow to me, and his knowledge of technology wasn’t sufficient for me to explain to him that I did actually enjoy making and creating things just like he did. Further disappointment came after a year of classes, when I left the last Further Maths class of year 12 in tears with an exam that was graded 30% and the written recommendation that I move down to Standard Maths.

My Further Maths class was a male-dominated class, and the (always incredibly) enthusiastic help I asked for from my male peers was often overwhelming. I’ve found that men and women often communicate differently, and my low confidence meant I often felt bad interrupting the well-intentioned but overwhelmingly long explanations from men to speak up and ask the small questions I really needed to ask. I quickly got left behind and felt like an outsider because of this.

The failure hit me hard. In hindsight, the qualities that I had used in the forums – Googling bits of code, troubleshooting things myself and with the help of peers – would have translated to Maths, but I’d lacked the confidence to do so. Over the same years, personal issues hit me hard and some home issues meant I had limited internet access, so my online communities all died as we all drifted apart. I drifted away from STEM and away from coding.

After the Further Maths failure,  my university options for studying Physics were limited – Russell group universities were only an option if I went down the English and German route. In a year 13 assembly, the headmistress announced to us all that University ranking, not subject, mattered the most, and so a bit spooked, I applied for and got accepted onto English and German Literature at Warwick University. I spent four years on the whole enjoying my degree but wishing I was doing Physics instead.

Five years on, by a twist of fate, I noticed the Code First: Girls internship advert in the Warwick Graduate Internship scheme and successfully applied. I’m now back to coding after having done one of our own HTML/CSS courses and co-organising the same coding courses for women all over the UK. Beyond HTML/CSS, the course taught me that it’s okay to ask questions, to not know or understand everything and to use Google. I’m once again in a motivating, friendly, coding community.

As well as this community helping to rebuild my confidence, coding itself is empowering. You start with a blank screen and end up with something you’ve designed and created yourself with your own bare hands. I’ve seen the same enjoyment in lots of my female CF:G coder peers. I’ve found the passion for coding again that I’d lost all those years ago, and whilst it’s not all plain sailing, I’m so happy.

If this resonates with anybody else, I’d love to hear your stories. I’d also like to say that there are also tons of communities out there to help you get back on your feet. Code First: Girls offer amazing courses, and Founders and Coders and Women who Hack for Non-Profit are wonderful as well – there really are so many organisations. Get Googling and reconnecting! There are so many groups out there for you who would love to have you join them.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

2 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Pursue a STEM Subject and How I Got Back into Coding”

  1. You have a boyish start in life. “lonely in the middle of nowhere, used to chat to people on a huge online forum instead.”
    Men are so alienated by society and their masculinity that they feel lonely in the middle of somewhere.
    “I soon realised there were also lots of smaller communities of groups who had created their own forums and before I knew it, I was creating, publicising, customising and managing my own with a group of international friends.”
    Almost every male I know. Trough clans in gaming etc. I think that more guys chose IT because they have those kinds of experiences.

    The experiences you had with long explanations etc. I think men who drop of have similar experiences too. You should not be afraid to interrupt a man, men are more emotionally tuned to aggressive clues. They use those more than facial expressions and don’t necessarily pick up the reactions you show with your face. Interrupting a man, would probably be considered normal to him.

  2. @Byleist Exactly! You’ve hit on a really interesting point there! My sister and I grew up in the middle of nowhere too, proper “one bus a week, and that was on Wednesdays for the market” country. And growing up we were both really into computers and our sloooowwww dial-up over ancient copper phonelines to make friends and build communities.

    For her, it was a chance to hang out with her friends from junior school who’d mostly been swept up by a different catchment area for secondary, or else to chat and gossip with girls she went to school with and missed when they’d hang out at each other’s houses in the suburbs. For me, it was an escape from being the nerdy kid, the one who got picked last for sports, got bullied, hated PE so much I’d literally start feeling sick the night before because of the stress of games the next day: online none of that mattered for either of us, we could be who we wanted, in a safe environment that we controlled ourselves.

    And I kept up with that, dabbled in MMORPGS, got into IT and that’s basically been my whole career. My sister… didn’t. She loved tech just as much as me (hell she helped me gut our old Pentium for spare parts because she didn’t keep cutting her hands on the insides of the case like I did!)

    …but despite loving the subject in general something at GCSE just beat all the love of sciences out of her. She ended up doing joint English and Geography at uni and I guess she’s happy enough as a teacher now, but I do wonder.

    Like you say, the Internet is an *amazing* resource for lonely people and god knows there’s no gender monopoly on loneliness/awkwardness among teens. And you’re right, men and women don’t always communicate the same way, but the Internet levels that too! So… why is there a divide? What’s going wrong if isolated boys and girls out in the sticks feel pressured and isolated by society, find solace in hacking code and building online communities… and are then driven out of that community? Surely, like you say, men and women with similar formative experiences should have an equal chance of entering STEM subjects? But they don’t, the numbers show they don’t.

    I guess some of it comes down to what OP says here, to pressures at school, to that fear we all learn to develop at school that interrupting at talking over teachers gets us told off (and which then makes it harder to cut across our peers). But how many people are getting discouraged by well-intentioned but sadly misinformed speeches by people like her headmistress who value university rankings over happiness with your choice of subject, to teachers who think it’s easier to say “drop out of this” than to ask “what support do you need to get these grades up?”. Some of it must come down to that, but that can’t be all of it.

    It’s stupid, right? We can take raw materials and build the most powerful communication networks the world has ever seen, create communities of lonely people so that living 40 minutes drive from the nearest pub is no obstacle to hanging out with your friends (at least, not unless someone wants to use the landline!!), we can do all that, we’re the most intelligent species we know of in the universe (to the extent we can conceive that we might be surpassed by some as-yet-undiscovered civilization)… and somehow we’ve got this insidious, invisible barrier that discourages girls from entering STEM subjects.

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