The proportion of the female workforce pursuing jobs in technology and computer science are low.  Is this because of gender stereotypes and the perception of IT jobs as a whole?  How has education played a part in discouraging women from seeking careers in these fields?  Katie Honeyfield and Lucy Lewis of Lewis Silkin discuss.

Gender stereotypes: women in technology

Although it might appear that the love for smart phones, laptops and tablets is evenly matched between the sexes, this appetite for technology is not reflected in the proportion of women choosing IT-related careers. For example, Google and Facebook’s female workforce is respectively 30% and 31%.  Both tech giants acknowledge that this needs to improve.  In the UK, women represent only 16% of IT specialists, 13% of people working in “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and 9% of new tech entrepreneurs in the City according to various recent surveys. There is also an apparent lack of women battling against cyber threats - women make up only 11% of the global information security workforce.

There are a number of different explanations for this. First of all, careers in STEM are often falsely presented by the media which promulgates strong stereotypes of people working in STEM related careers. The American sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” is a good example of this.  It caricatures IT skilled men as “geeks”, who play video games for hours on end, who lack social skills and who are not particularly successful with women.  Karen Price, Chief Executive Officer of E-skills UK suggests that in order to attract more women into the profession, the perception of IT jobs as “hard, dull and unsocial” needs to change.

Women in computer science

It is arguable that education has also played a significant role in discouraging women from this line of career. Computer Sciences in particular are not taught early in the curriculum, unlike maths for instance. Even though girls consistently outperform boys in exams, the "Women in IT Scorecard" recently published by the Institute of IT (BCS), shows that the number of women studying computing at A-level has almost halved since 2008, dropping from 480 to only 245. This means that men account for 91% of those taking this A-level.

Moreover, the number of female students predicted to enter the workforce after graduating from a Computer Sciences or another IT-related course also continues to fall each year.  It has been suggested in the US that teaching Computer Sciences earlier might have a positive impact on the stereotypes attached to those professions.

Gender equality

But is this imbalance a problem for the UK? Karen Price, representing the Tech Partnership and e-skills UK, thinks so. She comments that "no sector can afford to do without the talents of half the population. Women have so much to offer in technology, and in return the sector can provide them with a range of worthwhile career opportunities”. She further argues that “if we could even raise our female participation rate to that of Spain (23%), Greece (25%) or France (20%), we would be on the way to a more secure and prosperous future”.

Education Minister Nick Gibb has also contributed to the debate.  He argues that “if the UK is to compete on a global scale, we want more young people leaving school with the ability to make technology work for them. One simple way to do that is to use all of the talent at our disposal and encourage more girls to study these subjects”. Studies also seem to back this up, with one survey showing that technology companies with more women in their management teams have a 34% higher return on investment.

So how can this imbalance be addressed? Some steps have already been taken to try and attract more women to IT-related careers such as CodeFirst:Girls, a scheme launched by the City of London Corporation to introduce bright women to the world of coding. In September, schools in England started teaching coding from primary school level, as part of the new curriculum.  Employers also have a role in changing perceptions about tech jobs, by getting involved in the education curriculum and providing female role models that women and girls can aspire to. Some employers such as Aviva, BT, HSBC and John Lewis are already taking action, by supplying extra-curricular activities to students via the e-skills UK ITMB degree. However, Marne Martin, the female CEO of Service Power, firmly believes that there’s an onus on the individuals themselves. She says that “I do think that government has a role, as do senior leaders, but I also think that women and, in fact, any minority has a responsibility to be the type of person that they would themselves hire”.  She concludes “the reality is that women really need to want it.” 

A lack of women in IT-related careers could also bring real litigation risks for employers in that sector.  A male dominated working environment could give rise to a misogynist culture and employers might find themselves more likely to face harassment and discrimination claims from their female employees.  Of course employers in these sectors need to be alive to these potential risks and have robust policies in place together with effective diversity training for managers and employees.  Alongside this, however, employers can take steps to encourage a better gender balance in the workplace and, whilst this might not provide a magic solution to the problem, it is arguably a step in the right direction.

By Lucy Lewis and Katie Honeyfield, Lewis Silkin


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