The Gender Gap’ can be seen across almost all industries and, according to the World Economic Forum, is one we can’t expect to close until 2120.

Within the UK, tech is among the least progressive sectors when it comes to female representation, with women accounting for only 19% of the tech workforce despite forming half of the population. Faced with barriers such as institutional gender bias and fewer opportunities for progression, it’s clear more must be done to bridge the sector’s gender gap.

In this article, we build on the issues detailed in our last blog – Gender Imbalance in the Tech Landscape – and consider some of the ways that the UK tech sector can encourage more women and girls to pursue careers in technology.

Connecting Schools with Industry

One of the biggest issues with the UK’s tech talent pipeline is the disconnect between educational institutions and wider industry. Responsible for equipping young people with digital skills, schools play a huge role in delivering a supply of talent to the tech labour market. However, a lack of understanding around pathways into tech coupled with longstanding issues such as gender bias and a lack of funding mean that the supply of talent continues to fall short of the tech sector’s needs.

A reported 70% of young people believe that employers will invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, despite only half of employers having capacity to provide this training, and over 50% of employers find that candidates lack the right technical skills necessary for roles in technology. Despite the clear need for additional digital training among young people, participation in IT subjects at GCSE level has fallen 40% since 2015, suggesting that schools must do more to engage young people in IT subjects.

Encouraging Girls to Enter Tech

For girls in particular, gender bias in schools remains one of the biggest barriers to engagement with STEM subjects. A recent study by PwC found that only 27% of female students consider a career in technology (compared to 61% of males), of which only 3% identified it as their first choice. The study also identified only 16% of females as having had a career in tech suggested to them – a figure which doubles among male students.

This exhibits clear gender bias, which not only prevents young girls from receiving adequate digital training, but also impacts the sector more broadly further down the line, as women continue to be largely underrepresented. Currently constituting only 19% of the tech workforce despite making up half of the population, women offer a viable and practicable solution to the UK’s digital skills gap. But this gap can only be bridged by educational institutions and industry working together to identify holes in the current curriculum, provide adequate digital training, and ensure young girls are actively being encouraged to pursue technical qualifications.

Expanding the Tech Talent Pipeline

In order to bridge the gender gap in the UK tech sector, efforts must also be made to carve out a broader range of pathways into tech, in order to appeal to a wider candidate pool and diversify the workforce.

The industry has, for many years, prioritised university-led training as the primary route into a tech career, with the majority of entry-level roles requiring a Bachelor’s degree. This has been further reinforced by schools and learning institutions who, following the industry’s lead, continue to place heavy emphasis on students obtaining degrees in IT subjects over alternative qualifications like apprenticeships.

This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because of the expensive course fees which act as a barrier to entry for many students. For women in particular though, who are often discouraged from pursuing IT and other STEM subjects in school, apprenticeships provide an alternative way to develop the digital skills required to work in industry. However, low female engagement rates in IT apprenticeships (only 23% in 2020) suggest that more must be done to validate apprenticeships as a route for women getting into tech, in order to create a pipeline of diverse and competent talent.

Role Models

Also hindering the number of women and girls entering the tech workforce is the lack of female role models within the industry. Adding to the problem of only 5% of UK tech leadership positions being held by women, is the inaccessibility of these role models for the majority of young girls.

In fact, a recent study by PwC found that when asked to name a role model who has inspired them to pursue a career in technology, 83% of female respondents found it impossible to do so, and whilst 66% of respondents were able to name a famous man working in technology, only 22% could name a famous female.

This lack of visibility within the tech space means that for many young women, a career in tech is difficult to even envisage, let alone pursue. And with the responsibility for furthering diversity across the tech sector falling to a largely male leadership, many initiatives fall short of the mark when it comes to effectively conquering barriers to entry, and encouraging young women to pursue tech careers.

Dedicated Female-first Initiatives

One way to boost the number of female role models within the tech space is to develop grassroots schemes that pair women working in tech with school-age girls, in order to inspire them to pursue IT careers.
The development of built-for-purpose mentoring programmes that identify women excelling early in their career, and create direct links with young girls in schools offer a practical solution to some of the barriers to entry – namely, the problems caused by a lack of clearly-defined job roles in certain fields, and a lack of guidance around potential career paths.

Additional Support for Working Mothers

With a third of mothers forced to opt-out or scale back their careers – including reducing hours, shifting to part-time work or moving to a less demanding role – it’s clear that the tech sector must also do more to support women returning to work.

‘The Motherhood Penalty’, as it’s often dubbed, can be seen across multiple industries, with working mothers experiencing on average a 4-5% drop in salary per child. The Covid-19 pandemic also hindered working mothers further, who were forced to take on additional care-giving responsibilities during lockdown. This resulted in 865,000 women in the UK leaving the workforce in August and September 2020 alone, compared with just 216,000 men.

Initiatives such as offering equal maternity and paternity leave, and return to work schemes that provide adequate support and flexibility for working parents to re-enter the workplace could also help to increase female representation in tech, by ensuring that highly-skilled workers aren’t forced to choose between their progressing their career and having a family.

Conclusion

In order to tackle underrepresentation in UK tech, and appeal to a wider and more diverse pool of candidates, the sector must first look inwards. This begins with assessing the current flaws in the tech talent pipeline – such as institutionalised gender bias – and working with educational institutions to remove barriers to entry, and ensure that young people are equipped with the right digital skills to enter the workforce. The sector must also ensure that women entering tech are met with roles and working environments that encourage them to remain in the sector, by providing female role models and mentoring schemes, to meeting the needs of working mothers.