“My lightbulb moment was when I understood that computer science was such an interdisciplinary discipline, and that it really has such an effect on all of the innovation in the world at the moment.”
These are the words of Israel Francis Mason-Williams, one of 20 students to receive a Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Digital Explorers Bursary, launched in partnership with Queen Mary University of London in 2020.
The bursary’s vital financial assistance supports undergraduate students studying computer science courses at the university.
At least half of bursary recipients are women and/or from low-income families, helping to address the underrepresentation of females in the UK’s digital and IT sector.
Mason-Williams’ excitement for computer science developed while reading a research paper about how computer-aided technology could be used to understand how a bee perceives the world. This discovery altered his own perception of computer science − from being about apps and websites into something with a lot more meaning and significance − and led to him wanting to study further and develop digital skills. And in our increasingly technology-driven world, such skills are in hot demand.
But despite a booming jobs market for technical roles like programmers or developers, there are currently three men to every woman in over half of UK digital tech companies, according to a Tech Nation report. And women make up less than a quarter of students on higher education STEM courses in the UK, UCAS data shows.
This raised the question: where are the female computer scientists of the future?
“For a woman to be in technology… it’s almost as if we’re not used to it, and we need to be more used to it,” says computer science student and bursary recipient, Rana Zaki. “There need to be more mentors from a young age to show us that being in technology is OK.”
Schemes like the Digital Explorers Bursary help break down stereotypes and encourage people to see IT as a creative subject that’s open to all, regardless of gender, background, or other factors. Initiatives aimed at rebalancing the industry’s scales are a vital tool to support those from low-income families that are keen to study IT disciplines.
“There are so many stereotypes about computer science: that it’s male-dominated, that you have to have been coding since you were really young,” says Dr Karen Shoop, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. “So if you didn’t grow up in a family where there were computers for everyone at a young age, we want people to realize that doesn’t stop you being excited by the subject and brilliant at the subject.”
The bursary is part of TCS’ ongoing investment in STEM education and support for developing the digital technology leaders of the future, which includes recruiting 1,500 technology employees across the UK in 2021.
“Digital skills are a huge leveller, much more than other professions,” says Yogesh Chauhan, Director Corporate Sustainability at TCS UK&I. “However, inequalities do still exist, and we hope with the bursary those young people from low-income families and/or women are given the opportunity to study computer science.”
With the bursary’s support, ambitious young people in the UK have an opportunity to carry on pursuing their interest in computer science at higher education level, and target a prestigious job as a result of their studies − all the time growing in confidence and exploring opportunities they might otherwise not be exposed to.
“I feel as though it’s really boosted my confidence,” says bursary student, Niamh Field. “So, although I’ve not done any programming or computer science before this year, and I’m surrounded by my peers who may have been studying it for years, I do feel as though I belong here and that I can go on to achieve just as great things − and even better things.”
Of course, financial support is vital for bursary students, but the scheme represents much more. Recipients benefit from workshops run by TCS, giving students access to a range of professional people already working in IT, to ask questions, hear their stories and gain insights on what working in the field is all about. And it’s never too early to begin networking, forming new relationships for a future career.
“I was very excited, because I knew that with the workshops came more opportunities to network and expand more into the future before getting into the field within computer science,” explains bursary student Sarah Brahimi.
So, what advice would they offer would-be students thinking about studying STEM subjects? Brahimi has this insight for women.
“What I’d say to all of the girls who are looking into GCSE and A-level STEM is that they should 100% do it,” she says. “Even though people look at computer science and say, oh it’s not really a creative subject, it really is − you are creating things from what are mathematical procedures. And it’s really cool and it’s just really fun to do.”
“I was very excited, because I knew that with the workshops came more opportunities to network and expand more into the future.” - Sarah Brahimi, bursary student at Queen Mary University of London