Can women prevent a digital skills crisis in tech?

Digital businesses are one of the fastest growing sectors of the British economy, accounting for 16% of gross value added (GVA), 24% of total UK exports, three million jobs, and are now a thriving part of the accountancy industry.

But while the sector is expanding so quickly that it is outpacing the number of available skilled workers, women still appear to be struggling to find their place and progress in the industry.

Women occupy just 17% of tech jobs, and fewer than one in ten of these women are in leadership positions. On the other side of the equation, businesses are failing to achieve more gender balance in part due to the lack of female applicants.

Making women visible

The dearth of women candidates is contributing to a digital skills crisis in an industry that will underpin the success of the UK’s economy in years to come.  “You can’t catch all the fish if you only fish in half the pool,” said Digital Minister Matt Hancock.

Doniya Soni, Skills, Talent and Diversity policy manager at TechUK, a trade body representing the tech industry in the UK, is one of several senior industry figures working to close the skills gap and encourage more women to enter digital professions.

“I think there’s not necessarily a massive force that’s holding anyone back, but I do think that the lack of role models and the lack of visibility of women in tech can often be a deterrent,” she said.

Girls were still being discouraged from a young age to avoid careers in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics, known collectively as STEM, argued Soni.

“At a very base level there’s definitely a lot of work to be done on careers advice at schools. There’s a lot of startling reports about how some teachers don’t encourage girls to take STEM and say it’s for boys. That whole attitude needs to be changed significantly.”

Creating diversity

TechUK is among the signatories of the Tech Talent Charter, a movement launched with the aim to create greater diversity and increase the flow of women into the tech sector, to better reflect the make-up of the general population.

The charter brings together 89 of the country’s largest employers of computer developers, including the accountancy industry’s Big Four, to pledge to improve the diversity of their IT staff and close the gender pay gap. It receives a small amount of government funding.

The participation of major accounting firms is a reflection of the growing importance of tech in the accounting industry, particularly with the increased popularity of cloud computing.

The initiative was conceived partly in response to scandals in the US tech industry that have highlighted the overwhelmingly male proportion of technology professionals. The scheme focuses on collecting aggregate data about the proportion, pay and recruitment of women in tech.

Although it does not set fixed targets for improvement, Soni argued that it is “a big step change in the way that the entire diversity issue is being talked about in the tech sector because it’s actionable change rather than a talking shop.”

The Government, charities, and tech companies were all signatories, she said.

“Any signatory is required to submit data about the number of women working in their organisation in the technical sector and that data-gathering information will start giving us some real-time evidence about the women in tech problem,” Soni added.

“It will start giving us some numbers to play with about whether we are having a year on year impact.”

Don’t be afraid of femininity

Despite the frequent portrayal of the tech industry in the media as being hostile towards women, Soni does not believe women are discriminated against any more than in other sectors.

“But that’s not to say that we don’t need a culture shift in the UK tech sector,” she said. While the sector was working on doing more to help employees return after career breaks, Soni’s advice to women working in tech would be similar for any industry, she said.

“Do your best. Make sure you call out bad behaviour. If you feel that you’re being mistreated or that you are not being treated very fairly, don’t be afraid to speak to other people, your HR, other people in your organisation about it,” she said.

“Definitely don’t be afraid to be a woman because many people often say pretend to be a man but that’s often the wrong advice…If you change your behaviour to be like everyone else then you’re not benefiting yourself and you’re not benefiting the company.”

Educating girls and challenging change

The Tech Talent Charter is not the only initiative designed to increase the proportion of women in the tech industry.

Code First: Girls, a social enterprise which works with companies and women to increase their participation in the sector, recently launched a campaign to teach 20,000 young women to code for free by the end of 2020.

CEO, Amali de Alwis, pointed out that in some digital professions, the number of women employees was actually in decline.

According to the UK Office of National Statistics in 2017, of tech and telco professionals in the UK, only 3.9% were female programmers and software developers, down from 10% in 2007.

“I think that’s probably reflected in the numbers that are coming through universities,” she said.

“We pulled up that data, looking at the number of students who are applying to do degrees in computer science and of the 24,500 – 25,500 individuals who did a computer science degree, again only 14% were women….numbers are regrettably quite small.”

There are multiple reasons for this decline, suggested de Alwis. “It’s a little bit death by a thousand cuts,” she said. But at the root of the decline is the way that boys and girls are consciously or subconsciously streamed into either arts or sciences in the education system, she argued.

“The reality is when we’re talking around types of careers for girls we’re just not mentioning computer science or engineering or those kinds of subjects.”

Building a new community

Meanwhile in the workplace, even if a company has the right policies in place, like good maternity rights, or the option to work from home, it may still be failing to implement the “nitty gritty” details of how these policies work in practise, in order to retain female talent, she said.

The 2020 campaign, working with leading employers to train young women at the start of their careers how to code, seeks to redress some of the balance.

“Just give it a go,” said de Alwis. “Often what puts people off getting involved and getting started is actually a fear of I’m too late for this or how could I do this?”

“Just find the community where you can feel at home and springboard your learning. Pretty much everywhere you go there will be some sort of women in tech organisation. Get involved and help yourself to get excited about it.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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