In the Limelight: Women in tech

Alison Cowie examines why there is a lack of women in the tech and digital industry.

Women are now seen as the driving force of the UK economy, with research compiled by Founders4Schools reporting a 30 per cent per year median growth rate of women-led companies with a turnover between £1 million and £250 million.

But one sector where this potential appears to be lacking is in the digital sector where, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, females represent just 26 per cent of the sector. More worrying is that the research showed that this was a drop from the 33 per cent recorded in 2002.

Of course, there are women who have bucked the trend and have achieved great things in technology, such as Baroness Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com, Dr Sue Black, the founder and CEO of #techmums, and Vanessa Vallely, founder of WeAreTheCity.com.

But the sad fact remains that the tech industry, as a whole, remains male dominated.

So why is this the case?

One reason is the historic lack of girls engaging in STEM (science, technology, engineering and manufacturing) subjects at school and at university.

“There is age-old stereotyping in education, and in society generally, that creates hurdles for women in many careers, including the tech industry,” says Hilary French, headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls.

“Perceived ‘male’ subjects like STEM subjects have long been the preserve of the boys, with ‘softer’ humanities subjects the domain of women. Thankfully, change is happening, but it is still too slow and that’s why in certain industries women are still very much in the minority and in most, are in a tiny minority at CEO and managing director level.”

Hilary continues: “Encouraging girls to study STEM subjects and highlighting the wide range of opportunities these subjects open up are crucial to encouraging them to consider a career in the tech sector.

“The UK Government has taken an active role in effecting change by making computer science a compulsory element of the national curriculum for children aged five to 16. Children now have to learn to code and be able to debug a simple programme by age seven – the aim being to lay the foundations for future IT graduates.

“At Newcastle High School for Girls, we also have active coding clubs in both the senior and junior schools where, in association with Newcastle University Computing students, we are introducing the girls to the world of robotics, games and much more.”

Another reason often cited for the lack of female representation in tech is the perceived lack of flexibility for working women.

Ruth Harrison, director of retail strategy in Europe for global software company, Thoughtworks, reflects: “The tech sector hasn’t positioned itself as being female friendly. It needs to consider more flexibility in working arrangements and how it supports women who are entering the industry and returning to work after maternity leave.”

Encouraging more women in the tech sector, as Ruth believes, is essential to reflect market demand.

“Technology plays such a significant part of our daily lives and women as well as men should be shaping the user experience,” she says.

Not only this, but it would help fill the skills gap shortage – an ever-pressing issue for the tech industry.

“Tech companies are facing huge skills gaps internationally and are missing out by not pro-actively encouraging women into the industry,” says Hilary.

Speaking on International Women’s Day (March 8), techUK’s president, Jacqueline de Rojas, said: “Evidence shows that diversity leads to better decision making and commercial success. By encouraging women to enter or return to the tech industry at all levels, we become more competitive and more innovative.”

Jacqueline went on to outline ten actions that tech companies could adopt to support women in the industry.

These actions included inspiring young women through work experience and engagement with education, engendering culture change to eliminate gender bias, and promoting back-to-work programmes to help women re-enter tech workplaces after periods of leave, as well as nurturing talent through mentoring and better equipping women for senior and board-level roles.

Creating more networks, celebrating women in technology and highlighting more inspirational figures in the industry are also seen as ways to redress the gender divide.

Ruth concludes: “Women need to be bold and take on leadership roles. They need to lead by example and be the next role models. And if we can do that, it will have a positive snowball effect.”

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