A quick look round any classroom, workplace, park, bus, or any public space you care to name, and you’ll see girls busy with their smartphones, hunched over tablets, or transfixed by their laptops. But there’s a growing inconsistency between the rising number of girls embracing digital technologies in their personal lives, and the declining number of them choosing technology-related careers.
In my job I am privileged to work with tech companies of all sizes and types across the country. I visit their premises on a regular basis, and it’s crystal clear that men are massively over-represented in the vast majority of tech workplaces. The statistics bear this out: of more than 1.1 million individuals working as IT specialists in the UK, only 16% are women.
The scale of the gender imbalance itself is shocking, especially given that women represent 47% of the workforce as a whole. Its persistence is no less so. The percentage of women working as IT specialists has actually declined since 2003. What can be going on here, that discourages girls from pursuing careers in a sector that’s fast moving, well rewarded, creative and intellectually engaging?
Clearly, misperceptions of tech careers persist. When young girls are asked about working in IT, they conjure up images of dull and boring work, involving lots of maths and typing, without the glamour and attraction associated with law or medicine. They imagine they’ll be isolated, low status, and short of opportunities to make their mark. In practice, nothing could be further from the truth.
Tech companies long to recruit more women, but they can only choose from those who put themselves forward, and have the appropriate qualifications. To redress the balance, not only employers need to recruit more women, but those women need to want to be hired. And that is currently the issue.
Education is the key
Employers cannot resolve the gender divide in IT on their own. The key to reducing the gender imbalance lies at an earlier stage in women’s lives – in schools, colleges and universities; with careers guidance; with the parents; and ultimately with the students themselves.
For many years now, there have been fewer girls taking ICT subjects for their GCSEs. Last year, only 44% of girls sat an IT-related GCSE, compared to 51% for all GCSE courses. That gap widens by the time they decide what A-level subjects to take, and barely improves when they choose their higher education courses. Across all subjects in higher education in 2013 girls accounted for 57% of all applicants, whereas in computer sciences girls made up just 12% of all applicants. This is despite the fact that when girls decide to take IT related qualifications, they outperform boys : 76.3% of girls taking ICT GCSE achieve A*-C grades compared to 69.2% for boys.
Young people’s degree choices are not reflecting the growth of tech across the economy. The UK IT professional workforce grew by 27% between 2002 and 2013, but in the same period the number of applicants to IT-related higher education courses declined by 9%.
And this is why it matters. If the UK is to meet both the current demand for IT professionals and the growth of the IT professional workforce over the next decade, it needs to educate and attract high quality people of both sexes. It is also simply the right thing to do. More girls taking IT related qualifications means more of them in rewarding, enjoyable and productive IT specialist jobs – good news for them as individuals, and for the economy.
Recent months have seen significant changes to the school curriculum which I hope will help young girls become more enthused about technology-related subjects and, ultimately, enable them to embrace careers in the sector. If we improve the number of girls inclined to participate in IT careers then the talent pool overall will noticeably improve.
But the solution to the gender imbalance isn’t just in schools. Companies have a role to play, and they are deeply committed to working with education partners to change girls’ beliefs about tech and to offer exciting role models.
One example of this is e-skills UK’s ITMB degree. Employers are heavily involved in the curriculum, and supply a range of extracurricular activities that open students’ eyes to the challenges and rewards of an IT career. Women make up 33% of the intake – twice the average for other computing related degrees.
The UK has the ability to be world leader in digital infrastructure, services and skills, adding between £14bn and £63bn to our GDP. If we could even raise our female participation rate to that of Spain (23%), Greece (25%), or France (20%), we would be on the way to a more secure and prosperous future.