Taking on the gender diversity crisis in tech

The first ever programmer – Ada Lovelace – was a woman, yet the modern tech sector is dominated by men. Could the Tech She Can Charter rebalance the industry?

Female innovators and changemakers have unleashed a plan to tackle the UK’s gender diversity crisis in tech, and make the sector more inclusive.

The Tech She Can Charter was founded to challenge sexist stereotypes, empower young females, and place women at the forefront of a tech revolution that is shaping every aspect of our lives.

As of today, 45 organisations have signed the charter, with many more expected to follow suit. Signatories include the British Science Association (BSA), PwC, NatWest,HumanityX, Tesco and Barclays.

The initiative was created off the back of PwC research published last year, which shed light on the UK’s gender gap in tech.

The professional services firm surveyed 2,000 students and discovered core issues holding young women back: a lack of encouragement to embrace technology-related careers; a shortage of female role models in the tech sector; and a lack of understanding about the variety of roles on offer.

Only 27% of female students said they’d consider a career in tech, and just 3% said it was their first choice, while 16% had never been encouraged to enter the industry. And 78% were unable to name a famous woman working in tech.

Recent statistics paint an equally sobering picture. Just 24% of those who graduated in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects from UK universities in 2016-17 were women. The number of female graduates in computer science was the lowest, at just 15%.

The charter’s signatories are determined to tackle this crisis head-on. They plan to target areas with low levels of social mobility, introduce students to successful female role models in tech, and educate them about the variety of jobs in the sector. They’ve also pledged to address the gender disparity in their own tech workforces, and nurture an environment that will attract and retain women.

The BSA is setting up a cross-party group of members of the House of Commons and House of Lords to look at diversity in Stem more broadly. “We are launching an all-party parliamentary group on diversity and inclusion in Stem to promote the inclusion and progression of people from diverse backgrounds,” said Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the BSA, at the launch event, held in late February.

The purpose of the group, she explained, is to encourage government, businesses, parliamentarians, academics, and other stakeholders to build a Stem sector that represents the UK’s population.

Tech for good

Opening girls’ eyes to the multitude of ways in which tech can be used for social good is one way to inspire young women. HumanityX is determined to do exactly this. The group supports peace and justice organisations to embrace digital innovation so they can confront humanitarian challenges in a more effective way.

“As a girl, I was never shown how technology could be used for good. I always wanted to work in the humanitarian sector,” says Kate Dodgson, consultant at HumanityX.

“When I found out a tech career could get you to the front line helping defend human rights I was thrilled. I want other young women and girls to know this too. I want to show them how working in tech can be the best and most exciting way to have an impact on the world.”

Dodgson advises charities and NGOs on whether blockchain can increase their impact on society. The technology has been adopted by the World Food Programme and is being explored by Unicef as a way to improve its aid distribution methods. Dodgson believes the blockchain community linked to Britain’s humanitarian sector has an even gender divide. But she insists the same cannot be said for cryptocurrencies.

“Cryptocurrencies are definitely male-dominated,” she says. “Sadly, there is a Bitcoin-bro mentality, which is a massive deterrent for women.”

Women are better programmers’

Cybersecurity firm Sophos, which has also signed the charter, sees the UK’s gender diversity crisis in tech as a skills and opportunity gap.

“Cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing tech industries. There are opportunities to work as data scientists, building algorithms for machine learning; threat researchers, analysing the latest malware; or software engineers, building the latest products. We need to ensure we highlight to all women why this is a career path that should interest them,” says Ali Kennedy, vice-president, Sophos Group plc.

“Computing is not inherently a male topic. The very first programmer was a woman: Ada Lovelace. And research has shown that women are better programmers,” she says. “But unfortunately, over the years, the perception of computing as a male domain has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Women in tech drive economic growth

Margot James, minister of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, says she welcomes the Tech She Can initiative. The government recently signed an aligned charter, which aims to deliver greater diversity across the UK’s tech workforce, and the Tech She Can Charter is focused on taking action on the early pipeline.

But Helen Wollaston, the chief executive of Wise, a campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, suggests a lot of work still needs to be done. “If more women went into tech, they could take up unfilled vacancies, which are holding back economic growth,” she says.

“If the UK fails to produce enough people with computing skills and qualifications, companies will move to other parts of the world, where they can find the talent they need.”

Signatories of the charter agree. Without concerted action to cultivate a sustainable pool of diverse tech talent, they believe the UK could forfeit its competitive edge on the global stage. This, in turn, could create a climate where businesses’ technological requirements are unmet, investment is lost and tech products reflect the preferences and attitudes of males.

“There are many brilliant women working in technology roles right across the UK, from creatives and designers to coders and data scientists,” says Sheridan Ash, women in tech leader at PwC.

“Technology is open to all and we need to get that message across.”

 

PwC’s Women in Tech initiative

Student opportunities within technology

Experienced hire opportunities within technology

These articles were co-created with The Guardian.