Battle of the sexes: closing the gender gap in digital

How can sector bodies and professionals work together to ensure girls feel encouraged and enabled to thrive within tech disciplines?

Remote teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has made computer skills an even more crucial part of education, as classes moved online and IT teams supported staff while working remotely. This pivot to digital has been in the making for a while, but it brings into sharp focus the need for people of all backgrounds to feel welcomed to both courses and careers in technology.

Last year, the UK saw a 23% rise in female A-level computer science students – the seventh consecutive year in which the gender gap decreased. But girls still make up just 15% of those computer science students.

Chelsea Slater, co-founder and director of InnovateHer, a social enterprise based in north-west England that launches women from all backgrounds and ethnicities into technology, is campaigning for change. Students on their Tech for Good programme will be creating tech solutions for people affected by the pandemic. Slater believes that this problem starts early: “Gender inequality starts in our society from when we are born,” she explained. “This follows through into early school years, when adults give us advice on what career paths to choose.

At InnovateHer, many young girls have told us that their teachers or parents have not explored science or technology careers with them, but rather talk to them about roles within fashion or healthcare.”

Starting young

Many primary schools are working hard to address this gap – something that’s showcased by the ENTHUSE Celebration Awards, which recognises the best in STEM teaching throughout the UK. One of the 2020 winners is Sarah Eames, the science and environment leader at Sandfield Close Primary School in Leicester, who told ET: “At Sandfield, we feel it is essential to provide all children with role models that they can identify with, such as vets, astronomers and paleontologists. We have made a conscious effort to ensure that we provide the girls with activities and female role models.” Like Slater, she believes that very young children are subject to adult ideas of gender, adding: “We feel it is essential to do this as young as possible to prevent stereotypes which are formed at a young age.”

Another method of engaging younger children who might think STEM subjects aren’t for them is by deploying cross-curricular projects. Winners of a competition for primary school children to write and illustrate a story or poem about genetics, run by the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, were announced in December. Research fellow and creator of the contest Dr Tiffany Taylor said: “I decided to launch Storytelling Science as a way to get children thinking creatively about communicating science. I think science is often thought of as being an unimaginative and prescriptive discipline, however, creativity is essential in good science.”

Developing confidence

All of this hints at the fact that girls can be incredibly enthusiastic about technology – it just has to be packaged correctly.

But with older age-groups, when it comes to choosing options, it seems there is even deeper work to be done. As Slater explained: “I don’t think that girls are reluctant to pursue a tech-focused subject, rather they haven’t got the confidence to pursue it, due to various factors like not seeing female role models within the subject or not being given the space or time to explore these subjects in lesson time or at home.”

Moving up to secondary school level, then, Mick McCarthy, head of technology at Handsworth School for Girls in Birmingham, agrees that there can be additional barriers to computer science for teens: “We really wanted to fix the fear of failure and stress to [show] all of our girls from a young age that mistakes are learning opportunities and that the process is more important than perfection. What we have done when engaging with pupils is to not make the subject seem easy, instead bringing in lots of theory right from year 7 onwards with a real focus on why they are doing it rather than just thinking about the product they are making. Inevitably sometimes things will be difficult and sometimes it will go wrong. We believe this in the long run will help them build those skills needed and give them the confidence to pursue a STEM-based career.”

Slater’s feelings are similar: “When we work with young women over a period of time, we see that their self-confidence and belief increases, which results in them taking computer science at GCSE, or consider a tech apprenticeship.

One InnovateHer [student] grew enough confidence to study a computer science GCSE at the all-boys school across the road, as her school didn’t offer it – amazing!”

gender gap
Young women must be given space and time to explore tech-based professions

Raising the profile

As a result, women are starting to appear more in computer science labs at universities across the country.

At Birmingham, for example, 50 scholarships of £4,000 each are available to women studying on two of the university’s short courses from February 2021. Further north, at the University of Manchester’s computer science department, a new video series showcases women among the staff and students, also broadcasting a regular podcast to frequently raise the profile of females in the field. And it seems to be working; the university claims to have a higher percentage of women academics than other universities, at around a quarter of the total.

Increasing representation

Outside of the university environment, there are a number of grassroots organisations that support female training – notably Code First Girls, which operates in 38 places across the UK and Ireland, targeting women at all stages, including undergraduates and career-changers. Professor Sue Black left school at 16 and went from being a mum of three in her 20s, into a funded degree and a very successful career in tech. She is now a professor at Durham University and has started empowering initiatives such as TechMums and TechUP, which retrain women from underrepresented communities for specialist tech roles.

According to Tech Nation, at present, only 19% of the UK’s tech workers are women, although they make up just under half of the country’s total workforce.

So, in order to attract more women and non-binary people to enter this male-dominated field, employers may need to consider how to better accommodate their needs – for example, by being sympathetic to flexible working requests. They also need to respond more robustly to sexism and racism in their organisations, an issue for which social media platform Pinterest has recently come under fire. But it’s fair to say that most businesses are responding enthusiastically to the challenge of recruiting more women; at IBM, for instance, women are invited to the Technical Women’s Pipeline programme, where they’re offered a sponsor and a mentor to help grow them in their careers.

To quote Melinda Gates, “As women gain rights, families flourish, and so do societies. That connection is built on a simple truth: whenever you include a group that’s been excluded, you benefit everyone.” With our increasing reliance on technology, it’s important that said technology has been created for and by everyone – regardless of gender, race, religion or socioeconomic background. Confident employees, positive role models and female-friendly work environments are things all schools and businesses should strive for.

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