Summer exams show gender disparity in tech
Eleanor Bradley, COO at Nominet, talks about this year’s exam results and what they can show us about the current tech landscape
Each year, no matter your age or circumstances, the August exam results are of interest. Not only do young people’s achievements in GCSEs and A-levels shine a light on the UK’s endlessly evolving education system, they also provide early indications of career aspirations for the workers of tomorrow.
For those of us in the tech sector, we hope each summer to see more girls taking exams in STEM subjects, where a lack of gender diversity remains one of the most serious issues we are facing. This is exacerbated by the sector’s rapid rate of growth: according to a report from Tech Nation the total venture capital investment in UK tech topped £6bn in 2018, more than any other European country. In London specifically, the recent growth rate for tech scaleups is at 56%, which makes the cluster number one for scaleup growth globally. Such growth brings a demand for additional talent – and too often it is men who are hired to fill the vacancies.
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According to the 2018 Women in Tech Index, just 16% of the UK tech workforce is female. This is a global issue, and remains a problem even at the biggest tech companies in the world: women have just 20% of tech jobs at Microsoft, 29% at Apple, and 21% at Google, according to Statista’s research. It worsens as the seniority increases – a recent Inclusive Boards report found that women make up only 12.6% of board members in the sector.
Although we can never predict the career path of a student based on their exam subjects, we definitely need to see more young women taking STEM subjects at school as a first step towards a tech career. At A-level this year, the number of entries in STEM subjects increased by 1.7% in England, yet the all-important gender gap continues to worsen. Computing, ICT, and maths all saw a wider gender gap than 2018, with less females to males. It was positive to see that the gender gap in physics improved this year, but it remains significant.
At GCSE level, the number of girls taking computing rose this year, with entries up 14%. Unfortunately, women still only made up 21.4% of the total student numbers. With girls outperforming their male counterparts in both A-level computing and ICT – and in GCSE computing – the proficiency for these subjects is clearly there, but girls are lacking the interest or appropriate encouragement to consider careers in what is an incredibly rewarding sector.
Tech industry workplaces must proactively create an environment that is appropriate and welcoming to females as much as males to ensure women are not dissuaded by what they may perceive as a ‘male’ environment, where progression could be hindered.
A PWC report offers some insight. A survey of over 2,000 A-level and university students found that only 27% of women would consider a career in tech and a mere 3% think of it as a first choice. A lack of visible role models is a major issue; only 22% of all students could name a famous woman working in tech. There is also gender discrimination in career guidance, with only 16% of female students having had a role in tech suggested to them, compared to a third of males. We know that parents also have a role to play, and Nominet’s own research found that British parents are steering their daughters away from a career in tech, favouring a career as a doctor or teacher for their girls.
While parents and teachers must be conscious of their opportunity to widen the career choices of young women and inspire them to consider technology or STEM subjects, we also need to raise the visibility of women in the sector while making the career path more accessible. Apprenticeships are providing a smart path into tech for the keen, with early interest nurtured through regional and national contests in areas such as cybersecurity. These contests are fun, but crucially help educate young people on the breadth of roles available in the tech sector. Some of these contests are even female-only, such as The CyberFirst Girls Competition, and there are a growing number of regional initiatives working on skilling girls in areas such as coding and computing.
Meanwhile, tech industry workplaces must proactively create an environment that is appropriate and welcoming to females as much as males to ensure women are not dissuaded by what they may perceive as a ‘male’ environment, where progression could be hindered. Despite seismic changes in the way women are treated in the workplace in recent decades, a study conducted by CWJobs found some women continue to experience sexism and discrimination by being regularly subjected to backhanded compliments and uncomfortable encounters. They also report being overlooked for promotion opportunities.
Ultimately, getting anywhere close to gender parity in the tech industry will require wide scale social change, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. We can all make changes in our spheres of influence, whether as parents, teachers, career advisors, or tech sector employees. We can all contribute to a wider cultural discourse that will open up this exciting industry to the many girls who are discounting it and encourage them to bring their skill set to enhance the industry and the future it is shaping.
Related news: Increase in number of females taking computing at GCSE
As another August slides away, the exam results are a chance to reflect on the progress made so far and recalibrate our efforts to get girls interested in an industry that is changing the world around them. If they want to be part of the digital journey that will change their futures forever – and have the skills and the enthusiasm to perform – we, and many other tech companies, can provide the opportunities.