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Female Fuel for the Digital Economy

With a growing shortage of digitally skilled workers across Europe, women could present a relatively untapped source of talent. But why are women not better represented in the growing ICT sector already? This blog illustrates where ICT loses women to other disciplines, and what initiatives are trying to solve the problem.

Demand for employees with digital skills already exceeds supply

Computers, smartphones and other digital technologies have become a central part of our everyday lives. The ICT sector is shaping the future as we know it, enabling innovation and economic growth. It’s no wonder then that the evolution of the ICT sector presents vast opportunities for employment, income, and development.

From startups to large corporations, both in and out of the tech sector, businesses urgently need individuals with tech skills to support their growth. For example, 77 per cent of companies in London’s Tech City say their growth is hampered by a lack of skilled individuals. In fact, the European Commission estimates that by 2015 there will be almost 900,000 ICT vacancies in the EU. At the moment, ICT is a traditionally male-dominated sector. But with demand growing, we need to introduce new talent into the area, and women may be the answer.

At the moment, women account for less than a fifth of the UK’s ICT workforce according to ONS data. Aside from concerns around gender diversity, getting more women into ICT jobs holds significant economic advantages. The European Commission estimates that equal representation of women in ICT would result in more than 7 billion GBP in EU GDP growth. Moreover, studies from both academic and professional research has shown that firms with gender diverse senior management tend to perform better.

The gender gap in ICT starts early on

The gender imbalance in ICT can probably be traced back to bottlenecks in school education. In subjects such as mathematics – essential for students wanting to take computer science at university – girls represent on average only about 40 per cent of students taking A-levels between 2009 and 2013. In tech-heavy subjects such as computing, which covers how computers function and programming languages like Java, the amount of females falls to less than 8 per cent. These statistics show that the gender imbalance starts early on, most likely when girls are in secondary school, or even before.

Without these A-levels, the step towards computer science degrees at university, and a career in ICT is already more unlikely for girls. This is reflected in the relatively few women graduating from computer science programmes at university. And the numbers haven’t been getting any better. Indeed, the Higher Education Statistics Agency even reports a decrease in female graduates in computer science and IT related subjects, from 24 per cent in 2004 to less than 20 per cent in 2012. As for the women who do enter the ICT workforce, we witness the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect with many of them leaving mid-career.

Some initiatives are already trying to deal with this issue

There are different steps that can be taken along the way to encourage women to go into, and stay in, ICT.

Creating visibility from a young age

We need to get young girls excited about the world of computers and technology, so that they may be open to its opportunities later on and to avoid stereotyping. Linda Liukas, for example, has recently written Hello Ruby, a children’s book that teaches the basics of computer programming through the adventures of a little girl. The book was recently crowdfunded very successfully via Kickstarter. E-Skills created an after-school Computer Club for Girls initiative in 2005, giving girls aged 10-14 a chance to use technology to solve challenges. Generating Genius, funded by Google, will involve young girls aged 13-14 from the UK and Jamaica. The girls will be paired up and spend four days working together on a coding project connected via Google+.

Giving classes a makeover

The way we’re teaching and presenting computer science and other STEM subjects may be turning girls off. For example, Berkeley has recently announced that for the first time ever there are more women than men enrolled in its introductory computer science course. Professor Dan Garcia attributes this to tweaks to the curriculum which now includes more “team-based project learning”. Harvey Mudd College, also in the US, has been able to more than triple the percentage of female computer science majors to its annual average which has shifted between 37 and 50 per cent in recent years. Professors at Harvey Mudd changed the introductory course to focus on computational approaches to problem solving, and starts by teaching the students to programme in Python which is a bit more flexible than the more traditional Java. These types of changes can be implemented not just at university level but also through primary and secondary school.

Creating a sense of belonging

In a sector that is currently still very much male dominated, initiatives targeted at girls and women are a great way of helping boost confidence and forming a community. This can in turn play an important role in getting women to stay in the sector. In London, there are more and more organisations for women working in or interested in getting into tech. A few that come to mind are Girls in Tech, Geek Girl Meetup, Ladies who Code, Ladies in Digital and The Geekettes. These organisations often arrange meet-ups and networking events, but also put together conferences and speaker events.

Taking the untraditional route

Finally, we need to keep options open for those who come into computer science in a roundabout way. For recent female graduates for example Code First: Girls, run by Entrepreneur First, offers free part-time coding classes across the UK. Other organisations such as General Assembly, Steer or Maker’s Academy (who even offer a £500 discount for women) organise co-ed classes in coding, data visualisation and much more.

Author

Lou-Davina Stouffs

Lou-Davina Stouffs

Lou-Davina Stouffs

Research and Programme Manager

Lou-Davina is Research and Programme Manager for the Innovation Growth Lab in Nesta's Policy & Research unit.  Alongside running the IGL Grants Programme, Lou’s work focuses on the g...

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