Diversity within the technology sector is a popular topic of discussion. Through the media, government, businesses, education and across multiple industries and sectors, there is much talk around the need for more diversity and inclusion within tech. In particular, there is a strong call to engage and enthuse more women in STEM, and a lot of debate around why, and when, females are turned off from pursuing pathways in tech.
The statistics certainly show a poor representation from women in the sector. This year only 11.8% of A Level Computing students were girls, just 17% of the tech workforce are female and a mere 5% of leadership positions in technology are held by women.
However, according to a report by Girls Who Code, 74% of young girls aged 11-13 express an interest in STEM subjects. So, what changes? And why is this figure so far from the reality of the ever-growing male-dominated tech workforce?
What do we know about the problems?
One of the problems many tech companies blame for their lack of diverse hires is the education system. They claim that graduates with the relevant education and qualifications are mostly male and from affluent backgrounds. Diverse hiring is hard to do if there is a limited pool of talent to source employees from.
A report published in August this year by the Edge Foundation has stated than an estimated 600,000 vacancies in digital tech is currently costing the UK £63 billion a year. There is simply not enough STEM graduates to fill the jobs. The main problem seems to be lack of engagement (particularly amongst girls) in computing and interest in pursuing it academically.
As well as education, culture evidently plays a key role in female reluctance to pursue a career in technology. Whilst there is a positive and growing effort from industry and media to change the image of tech-related careers and companies, there still remains negative preconceptions of the sector and associated recruitment predominantly being geared towards, and favouring, men.
A lack of female role models and female colleagues will also discourage girls from seeing tech as a viable career choice. A recent piece of research from Stanford University shockingly found that “66% [of women in Silicon Valley] reported feeling excluded from social and networking activities due to their gender.”
Why is ensuring gender diversity in tech so important?
According to a report by Tech London Advocates, diverse companies outperform non diverse ones by 34%. It is evident that having a variety of strengths and outlooks within the team makes for increased creativity and a more rounded output.
It is also important to bear in mind that the end users of tech products are not one homogenous group but, naturally, diverse. Particularly when considering the fast-paced advances of new technology; in order for the future of digital to work for everyone, it needs to be created by everyone. Digital Agenda have explored this issue of bias within emerging tech solutions, simply stating that ‘AI is too important to leave to men’, with Dame Wendy Hall arguing “fixing the tech gender imbalance is more urgent than ever”.
So, what are the solutions?
There is inevitably still a long way to go until hiring a diverse employee base becomes the norm. To keep driving the necessary change forward we need to harness enthusiasm at an early age and continue to grow and nourish it from there.
A report from Microsoft explains that “Girls don’t initially see the potential for careers in STEM to be creative or have a positive impact on the world. But even a little exposure to real-world applications of STEM knowledge dramatically changes their outlook”. Female role-models in STEM have also proven to almost double, on average, girls’ interest in STEM across Europe.
Provision of free, high quality tech education which incorporates hands-on creativity, real-world relevance and uses female role-models to inspire and enthuse students therefore appears vital if we are to make moves towards addressing the gender imbalance. It’s particularly key to ensure that this can be accessed by those who would not necessarily have the means (or desire) to search it out themselves.
Apps for Good is an education technology movement that provides product development courses (app development, Internet of Things and Machine Learning) within primary and secondary schools, training educators and empowering young people from an early age to create technology solutions to real-world problems they care about. The approach clearly works to inspire girls; in 2018 56% of young people participating in an Apps for Good course were girls and 54% of female students stated that they were more interested in pursuing a technical job as a result.
The opportunity that technology brings to improve individual lives, communities and society as a whole, is huge. However, for it to really benefit all users, we must ensure that it becomes a diverse and inclusive sector. We hope that though starting early, and through focusing on education, we can start to grow a truly gender-balanced tech workforce of tomorrow.