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What exactly is the problem with the lack of women in tech?

  • Written by mTech.Academy’s Diane Morrow and Bazaarvoice’s Seamus Cushley

    At first look, most people from the novice to the expert would highlight the lack of women in technology and the broader start-up ecosystem as a pipeline problem. In March 2018, prior to their ‘Stemettes’ event held in Derry, job site Monster published the research that nearly half (45%) of UK employees believe that women are underrepresented in jobs that require tech and digital skills.

    According to statistics, only 11% of women pursued an IT and tech degree at university. Although there is a continuous debate in Northern Ireland around the number of university places available to study computer-related subjects at our domestic universities; the argument around widening access to careers in tech and digital is a much more complex discussion. In essence, it is a complex problem which is not new and indeed not unique to the tech sector; however, in a world which is digitally transforming, it is imperative that all our young people and their family influencers are aware of the opportunities which exist. The economy is transforming - technology is creating new jobs and changing our lives, our society and our planet through blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), wearable computing, drones, robotics, predictive analytics and 3D printing. While the polling company MORI suggests that teachers are the most trusted citizens to give advice; to drive change requires a collaborative approach from those in tech, business leaders and parents to help all underrepresented see the contribution they could make in this world of complex problems.

    Let’s explore the factors that drive women to pursue technology career pathways from their earliest years to later in their careers.

    As a parent of a daughter, would I suggest a career in tech to her? My view is at nine years old she is too young to decide on a career choice, but she is old enough to start looking at her skills and passions. I want her to make informed choices throughout her life, whether that be her next school, her subjects, her work experience, the country she chooses to live in, her route to higher or further qualifications, or the company she chooses to align her values to. I want her make informed choices with a curious and questioning mind.

    In a world of digital overload through Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, it is relevant to ask; “are role models important as an influencer for girls?” In November 2019, a study commissioned by CW Jobs, indicated that role models are more important for women than men. 60% of women working in STEM (science-technology-engineeringmathematics) say that they have been inspired by a role model compared to 46% of men. For women working in tech, role models are even more important: 64% were inspired by a role model to pursue their career compared to just 47% of men.

    However, a recent study conducted by professional services firm PwC, indicated that only ‘‘22% of students can name a famous female working in technology, whereas two thirds can name a famous man working in technology”. Further statistics suggested that a quarter of female students say they’ve been put off a career in technology as it’s “too male dominated.”

    In comparison, if we look to the Republic of Ireland, where Microsoft Ireland’s Managing Director is the inspirational female leader Cathriona Hallahan, is the situation any better? Statistics from a survey conducted by femalebased STEM initiative, I Wish found that “59% of girls in the Republic of Ireland believe they don’t know enough about STEM careers. 93% of teachers say that self-belief in girls’ own ability is a major roadblock to STEM promotion in schools, and 90% of teachers want to see workshops for girls to enhance resilience and confidence.” Momentarily ignoring the STEM as opposed to the wider STEAM for a moment, the similarity in problems is interesting. However, perhaps where the Irish are leading is in a joint approach to tackling the issue with an agreed collaboration with not-for-profits, tech companies, and universities leading new initiatives endorsed with ministerial support.

    The situation is similar across the pond. In the USA women make up less than 25% of the STEM workforce. Data from the US National Science Foundation shows that between 2006-2014, the number of women graduating with a degree in computer science actually declined.

    Economic Drivers

    While at a basic level less women in tech can be seen as a pipeline problem, there is a valid economic argument; currently in ‘tech’ across software houses, professional and financial services there is an undersupply of people (talent) to fill in excess of 325 vacant positions per year.

    Therefore, increasing the pipeline will to some extent alleviate the pressure on companies trying to recruit and this is positive for the economic growth of NI. However, it goes deeper than current recruitment needs. 95% of businesses are seeking to increase their demand for digital skills in the future; with current overheating in the market, does this play well for NI as an FDI (foreign direct investment) tech hub in the long term?

    The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) argues that the current situation is a people and skills issue with foundations in a mismatch between industry needs and content taught at higher and further education. However in order to address the issues of too few girls going into tech, we at mTech.Academy believe the issue is deeper. With the much-discussed impact of AI and automation, every job will be a technology job. Microsoft’s educationalists predict that “in fewer than ten years, we estimate three in four jobs will require deep and specific technical skills.” From a Northern Ireland lens, the recent Tech Nation report suggests that “nearly one in four jobs advertised in Northern Ireland last year was for a digital tech worker as demand for talent grows in the sector.” The Skills Barometer created by Ulster University suggests that in a high growth scenario for NI, the Information and Communication sector will grow by over 50% with one in three jobs requiring an undergraduate level educational qualification.

    In NI, not having women participate in computer and technology is a serious issue which is causing short term heartburn for the NI economy, but if not addressed NI will not grow at the required rate.

    The skills demanded in this transforming economy have been coined as 21st century skills including critical thinking, collaboration, creative problem-solving, self-awareness, selfmanagement, responsible decisionmaking, and the ability to construct complex solutions. They will all be required in this digital age.

    This is important because in this knowledge, we are missing key skills in which girls and women excel at – problem-solving. The Global Educational standard tests PISA (a test that evaluates students’ academic abilities). In 2012 individual problem tests showed that in isolation boys outperform girls. However in 2017, assessing 125,000 15-year-olds to see how well they solved problems collaboratively, girls “on average, were about half a year ahead of their male classmates in collaborative problem solving.” This is significant when the working world values collaboration and team working. In NI that translates to problem-solving for some the biggest tech and engineering firms from Belfast but with teams located across the globe.

    The concept of problemsolving in computing is not new and indeed; if we look to the 1960’s and the work of the Lincoln Labs at MIT, more than one in four ‘career programmers’ (a term categorising those working with technology) were women. One of the women and indeed the lead programmer, Mary Allen Wilkes attributed the statistics to the fact that the work of the ‘programmers’ at that time was not seen as ‘high status work’.

    In her interview in The New York Times, Mary recounts that the work she and her team did was akin to solving complex problems. “It was like working logic puzzles — big, complicated logic puzzles,” Wilkes says. “I still have a very picky, precise mind, to a fault. I notice pictures that are crooked on the wall.” The skills of the female ‘human computers’ lay in their mathematical educations, and this can be seen in Hollywood adaptations of the women behind NASA, such as the movie ‘Hidden Figures’.

    If we go back to careers advice of the late 1990’s, Maths and English were deemed as the subjects students were advised to study if they wished to follow a career in technology or engineering. In recent years the additions of computer science subjects have posed problems for head teachers in a metrics and league tables-focused environment. Educational funding pressures and competition for student numbers equates to curriculums offering subjects which will allow students to achieve above the NI average of A*-C. So, is it essential for students and female students in particular to study computer science at school? Are there better ways to highlight to young girls the value they could bring to the tech sector and the type of work they could be involved in?

    Females aren’t considering technology careers as they aren’t given enough information on what working in the sector involves, and also because no one is putting it forward as an option to them. Unless you work in the sector it is difficult to comprehend the endless roles and opportunities available to young, bright curious minds and it becomes more of a conversation about talent diversity than a narrow focus of girls in tech. Technology organisations need to highlight how technology is a force for good if they want to attract more females to the sector. Half of females say that feeling like the work they do makes the world a better place is the most important factor when deciding their future career.

    So what can be done? If we look to the Republic of Ireland again, beginning teachers spend a semester in a start-up - giving those whom are most trusted in influencing young people real insights in the opportunities of tech enabled jobs.

    If role models make a difference in helping young girls see themselves in a tech career, is it incumbent on all our tech driven businesses to highlight their leading ladies?

    Researchers from the recruitment company, Nerdelia state that “girls lack a sense of “belonging” to a tech community, but they also lacked the facts – the doors that open as a result of a computer science degree or the amount of money developers have the potential to earn, for example. Many respondents felt that the opportunity to meet women who work in the tech industry would have been invaluable when they were making their career choices. These are all things that start-ups have the power to change.”

    We are living in an age of increased complexity and are facing global challenges at an unprecedented scale. The nature of connectivity, interactivity, and information is changing at lightning speed. In a world of choice, informed and perceived options, how can we as parents, educators, business leaders and females in tech collectively work to improve women’s participation in the tech industry at each key stage of their careers?

    This movement to build a generation of design thinkers could not be timelier or more relevant, but it will take the ability to open our eyes to see what could be for our daughters, and a willingness to work collaboratively to create a diverse workforce for all in tech. We need to enable a generation of leaders who believe they can make a difference in the world around them because we need this generation to build new systems and rebuild declining ones. We need them to be great collaborators, great communicators, and great innovators.

    This article first appeared in the Women in Tech special edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download a FREE copy here.

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