Nikki Watkins - Tackling the IT skills shortage by closing the gender gap

Nikki Watkins on tackling the IT skills shortage by closing the gender gap

With new initiatives starting up all over the world, there’s never been a better time to address the industry’s much-publicised gender gap. We talk to some of the UK’s leading female players about how best to tackle the IT skills shortage.

Highlights

  • Only 17% of the 1.18 million IT specialists in the UK in 2014 were female
  • Making girls aware of the range of roles and the impact of IT careers makes a difference
  • Parents play a major role in which subjects girls take at GCSE, and they need greater guidance to understand that IT is a career for women

The number of girls studying IT in the UK makes for worrying reading. Only 10% of students studying computing A-levels are female and the number undertaking an ICT A-level (where 36% of students are female) fell by 4% last year.

Unsurprisingly, the figures for technology sector employment are equally discouraging. The 2015 Women in IT Scorecard found that only 17% of the 1.18 million IT specialists working in the UK in 2014 were women and that just 13% of programmers and software developers were female.

The UK is also experiencing a technology skills shortage. According to July’s Tech Partnership Fact Sheet, there was an average of 163,000 vacancies for digital specialists during each quarter of 2015, while estimates from ONS/Eurostat indicate that more than half of businesses are struggling to fill digital roles.

Early initiatives

There are many programmes and initiatives focused on increasing female participation in IT, although TechUK’s diversity policy manager, Doniya Soni, believes that better co-ordination of these initiatives would be the single most important element in increasing the number of women working in technology.

“To make a bigger impact, we have to start working with primary schools and making technology more interesting,” says Sarah Burnett, vice president of Everest Group. “We also need to invest in programmes that keep girls’ interest going. We need an Olympic-style investment programme to attract girls to IT.”

“There’s a need for the tech organisations to partner with schools and consider the talent pipeline at an earlier stage” – Nikki Watkins, co-founder, TLA Women in Tech

Nikki Watkins, CEO of Tyche Leadership Consulting and co-founder of TLA Women in Tech agrees with the value of early engagement: “There’s a need for the tech organisations to partner with schools and consider the talent pipeline at an earlier stage.”

Initiatives that increase women’s awareness of the range of roles available, and their confidence that they can be successful in them can make a real difference, suggests Karen Price, CEO of the Tech Partnership. “For example, our TechFuture Girls clubs change the attitudes of 9 – 14 year old girls, with 84% reporting they are more likely to consider education or a career in technology as a result. Similarly, employer-backed Tech Industry Gold degrees attract double the proportion of females compared to the average for all computing-related degrees.”

Clear impact and benefits

According to Maja Luckos, head of people analytics and diversity at Capgemini, changing the way we talk about IT and focusing on its purpose could also have a major impact on the gender mix. “Schools, universities and employers should talk more about what technology does and how it can change lives than what it is or how to code. Those thinking about becoming a doctor or a lawyer are clear what impact they can make, but I am not sure if it is the same for people considering careers in IT.”

She says US colleges have increased the number of female computer science majors by renaming courses such as ‘Introduction to programming in Java’ to ‘Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python’, with words such as ‘creative’ making them more accessible.

Gillian Arnold, founder of Tectre and chair of BCSWomen, says one of the key concerns is unconscious bias in the technology industry caused by lack of awareness or understanding of women and their qualities. “If you are in a position to recruit you should be aware of any biases you might have.”

Changing attitudes

“Technology business leaders need to acknowledge the role they play and advocate the transformation needed in their hiring policies, promotions, language (particularly in performance management measurements) and their people-development strategies”, adds Watkins.

As well as addressing management biases, Arnold refers to a need to educate parents about their daughters’ ability to work in technology. “Parents play a major role in young girls’ decision making around which GCSEs to take and they need greater guidance to understand that IT is a career for women. The WISE ‘People Like Me’ project shows girls that if they continue with at least one STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject after the age of 16, they are likely to have better prospects and more career choice. Too many girls don’t see themselves as technologists.”

“Schools, universities and employers should talk more about what technology does and how it can change lives than what it is or how to code” – Maja Luckos, head of people analytics and diversity, Capgemini

Soni refers to a “startling lack of appropriate careers guidance in schools” and says girls are often encouraged to take easier subjects for better grades. “Some do not take up STEM A-Levels due to fear of failure; girls are more cautious of what they perceive to be difficult subjects and are encouraged by teachers to take subjects in which they know they will excel.”

The benefits of a more gender-balanced IT workforce are undeniable. As well as helping to solve the skills shortage, increasing the number of women in IT will also improve performance. US researchers have found that while there is little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members, if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.