As the tech sector has grown at breakneck speed over the past 20 years, a lack of investment in digital skills training and a disconnect between educational institutions and industry have contributed to the growing skills gap.

For women in particular, institutional gender bias and a lack of female role models have also meant that fewer and fewer school-age girls are choosing to embark on careers in technology. And for those who do, further barriers such as fewer opportunities to enter senior leadership roles and a lack of support for working mothers do little to bridge the gender gap.

But what are the biggest causes of gender disparity in tech today? Ahead of International Women’s Day, we’re looking at the numerous obstacles women face as they enter the tech sector.

The Tech Talent Pipeline

As the number of tech vacancies skyrocketed over the past two years, finding the talent needed to meet this demand proved a difficult task for UK tech firms. But the flaws within the UK’s tech talent pipeline didn’t arrive with the onset of the pandemic, nor will they disappear when it comes to an end.

In fact, despite the tech sector’s exponential growth over the past two decades, inadequate investment into the skills of young people has allowed the digital skills gap to widen each year. Despite the obvious demand for IT professions, and a clear case for providing more digital skills training in schools, the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015.

In 2021 only 20% of GCSE IT students were girls, falling from 21% in 2020 and reflecting a wider decline in engagement with STEM subjects seen in recent years. This fall in the number of girls studying IT is thought to result from a combination of gender bias, a lack of accessible female role models, and a lack of understanding and guidance about potential career paths.

A recent study by PwC found that only 27% of female students consider a career in technology compared to 61% of males, and of these female students, only 3% identified a career in technology as their first choice. This may go some way to explaining why underrepresentation in tech remains an issue for women long after their schooling is complete.

Tech Leavers

A recent study from Accenture and Girls Who Code concluded that the gender gap for women in technology as a whole is “worse today than it was in 1984”. Despite forming half of the country’s total workforce, women constitute only 19% of UK tech employees, with London (28.4%) and the South East of England (27.7%) showing the country’s highest proportion of female tech workers. Adding to the problem of underrepresentation is the rate at which women are leaving tech roles, with over 50% of women abandoning technology careers by the age of 35 – a rate 45% higher than men.

Similar to the issues identified in the tech talent pipeline, gender bias and a lack of female role models both play a part in women choosing to leave tech careers.

Of the study’s respondents, only 21% said they believed the technology industry was a place they could thrive; a number which falls drastically to 8% for women of colour. This sentiment was further echoed in research conducted by TrustRadius in the US, in which 78% of women stated that they felt they needed to work harder than their coworkers to prove their worth. Almost 40% of women also viewed gender bias as a barrier to promotion, likely a reflection of the sector’s low proportion of leadership roles filled by women (currently, only 5%).

Another factor in the decision to leave the sector, for many women, is the lack of support received after starting a family. A recent report from Women in the Workplace found that one third of mothers are forced to opt-out or scale back their careers, including reducing hours, shifting to part-time work or moving to a less demanding role. ‘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. This, coupled with the barriers to promotion seen across the tech sector mean that tech women are at a particular disadvantage when returning to the workplace after having children.

The Impact of the Pandemic

Some critics also believe that the arrival of Covid-19 has further dampened the tech sectors’ drive for gender parity.

TrustRadius concluded that women in tech were nearly twice as likely to be laid off or furloughed during the pandemic than their male colleagues. This is due, in large part, to women being more likely to hold entry-level or junior positions within tech companies than their male counterparts, and also the additional strain of shouldering more responsibilities at home during lockdown.

Additional responsibilities such as managing childcare and remote learning are thought to have contributed to 865,000 women leaving the workforce in August and September of 2020 alone, compared with the 216,000 men who left the workforce in the same period.

So what can the sector do?

The disconnect between education systems and the industry remains one of the biggest challenges to the tech talent pipeline, and to bridging the skills gap in UK tech. Without commitment from educational institutions to investing in digital skills training for young people, the gap will continue to grow even wider, but these institutions must first understand the current gaps in curriculum and breadth of tech careers available, which can only be informed by connecting with industry. In actively encouraging young women to pursue careers in tech, and equipping them with the skills to enter the workforce, schools can help to create a new supply of tech talent that will help to close the gap in years to come.

Work must also be done, however, to ensure that once in the sector, women are encouraged to progress into more senior roles. This begins with providing visible, relatable role models for young women, and ensuring that women are seen to be engaged in senior leadership positions. In addition to making these roles available, the sector should also work to ensure that women choosing to have a family aren’t penalised for doing so, and are encouraged to maintain a career once they’ve become a mother – for example by offering childcare provisions or introducing flexible working options.