Building the UK’s future together

Leigh Smyth argues for a range of solutions to get more women working in tech, from encouraging young girls to study STEM subjects at school to flexible and agile working for women in IT.

It has become widely recognised that digital technology is one of the great enablers of our generation. The demand for it spreads right across the whole of the UK, from individuals, small businesses and charities to large multi-nationals.

The positive economic benefit digital technology brings is also well understood. The more businesses adopt a digital approach, the greater the boost to GDP and productivity. Demand for a skilled digital and technological workforce is continually growing; however, the pace of growth in the Digital Economy outstrips the current skills base. The Government’s 2017 Digital Strategy estimated there will be a gap of over 1.2 million jobs in digital skills by 2020 and this will cost the UK economy around £63bn in lost income.

This is reflected in a recent study by the Tech Partnership, which found that almost half (42 per cent) of firms recruiting tech specialists reported that some or all of these positions had been hard to fill. This is at least in part due to the shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates, something that is particularly prevalent amongst women.

The Tech Partnership’s 2016 Women in IT Scorecard[1] shows the proportion of women studying or progressing along the path to IT employment drops at each of the key stages in their educational development – at GSCE level and in this year’s exams, only 39 per cent of those taking Design & Technology and ICT, and only 20 per cent of those taking Computing were girls and this continues throughout education, with girls representing for example only 9.5 per cent of students taking computer science at A-Level. This leads to just 17 per cent at Higher Education overall.

The current female talent pipeline in the UK therefore does not represent the UK population and cannot support the growing demand for digital and tech roles. Only 17 per cent of specialist IT jobs are held by women.

It is important that we face into this skills gap and focus on how to support, inspire and encourage more women to move into Digital and Technology roles.

A crucial way to achieve this is through a collaborative approach, we need to be working in partnership with other industries to look beyond the current horizon, and work together to encourage more women into the industry. Given the underrepresentation of women, and noting the reduction in STEM subject consideration at a relatively early age, a key way to address this is by helping inspire young female students to see the opportunities for the future.

Events such as the Discover Your Digital Future Event in Manchester and by TeenTech are exactly what are required – allowing young school children to experience the sector for themselves. The Discover Your Digital Future Event saw leading women attend from companies such as Facebook, the BBC, Lloyds Banking Group and Accenture. They deliver inspiring and educational sessions on the range of opportunities available in the digital and technology sectors to school children across Manchester. The most important thing I think they shared was their own stories about how technology isn’t all about coding, but also data, intuitive system thinking, and new ways of working.

It is also vital we provide the skills required to work in the digital and technology sector, through programmes such as The Tech Partnership that is aiming to address this through initiatives such as TechFuture Girls[1] programme and the Code Club initiative, which enable school children as young as nine to learn how to code in sociable after school environments. The TechFuture Girls programme is a club for girls aged nine to 14 and Code Club, an initiative where Lloyds Banking Group give volunteers the chance to run an after school club for around 20 kids, aged nine to 11, in a local primary school to help them learn how to code.

For women already in the workforce, we need to address the fact that the role that companies play is also vitally important. Across Lloyds Banking Group, there is a well-established network, Breakthrough, which is an inclusive network committed to supporting the development of women for the benefit of all colleagues and the Group. Breakthrough is run by a passionate and dedicated team of volunteers who deliver engaging events and activities for 16,000 members to help support their needs and development, including those who perhaps felt as I once did: I didn’t understand how I could build a career within the Digital sector.

Flexibility and agile working is also key to encouraging a more diverse workforce into any sector – and the digital sector can be a leader in this. Technology has been a massive enabler for me personally, whether it is remote working, compressed weeks or reduced hours. I use FaceTime, conference calls and virtual meetings, which allow sharing of desktops. This allows my colleagues and I to balance work and home, and to get the most out of our careers. It also helps to create a supportive culture where people are able to be judged on their outcomes regardless of where they are based or which hours of the day they work. From my own perspective, I see the ability to work flexibly as essential.

Linked to this is a need to champion women currently in the tech industry. This can then be used to inspire for the future, as well as break down some of the stereotypes associated with the type of roles available in the digital and technology sector.

There is no one silver bullet to resolve this issue and it will take concerted effort from a range of partners and organisations to close both the gender gap and the digital skills gap.

The benefits of doing so are clear for all to see. A prosperous and inclusive UK economy will only be achieved by unlocking the full potential of 50 per cent of the labour market.