Tara O’Sullivan has a message for businesses, at the start of National Coding Week.
It’s National Coding Week this week. The awareness drive – which is volunteer-led – aims to help build people’s confidence around coding, as well as other important digital skills. The reason? We’re in the middle of a growing digital skills crisis.
There is already a lack of individuals able to understand, handle and implement the new technologies businesses have to contend with. As technologies such as 5G, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence come to fruition, many organisations will struggle to stay competitive.
The answer is to encourage more people to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) areas. This applies to students, as well as those individuals already in the workforce. It will require both training, and re-skilling, but it will be key to closing the digital skills divide.
An untapped resource
One solution may be quite simple: get more women into STEM. Currently, women make up just 23% of STEM occupations in the UK, and therefore closing the diversity gap in these fields will naturally help to close the wider digital skills gap. Women are an untapped resource of digital talent.
An attitude overhaul – for both women and men – is needed if we are to close the STEM gender gap.
The reasons for such a stark diversity divide are complex. We’ve come a long way towards increased awareness for gender equality in the workplace in recent years, but today women are still paid less than men, represented in fewer board positions, and hold fewer leadership positions in companies.
A recent report by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) and the High Pay Centre revealed that just seven of the FTSE 100 companies’ CEOs are women. FTSE 100 chief executive officers are as likely to be named Dave, as they are to be female.
At the current rate of one new female CEO each year it will take another 43 years for women to make up 50% of the FTSE 100 CEOs. The report also reveals that while women make up 7% of FTSE 100 CEOs, they earn just 3.5% of total pay.
Fortunately, this disparity is gaining attention, and companies are beginning to take action to rectify the situation. But despite progression in gender equality, women are still grossly underrepresented in STEM. Those women who do enter STEM careers are more likely to leave for other industries than their male colleagues, with more than half leaving by the 10-year mark.
The challenge, therefore, is two-fold: get more women into STEM, and keep them there.
Back to school
Low levels of female participation can be traced back all the way to the school years; the number of girls taking IT and STEM qualifications – particularly at GCSE and A-Level – is still very low. Why is this?
A number of influences from society and culture, education and the labour market are all at play. Some women feel that men suit STEM more than they do. This is why there are so many programmes aimed at getting girls interested in these areas.
The ongoing drives are trying to eradicate and challenge old fashioned view points held by parents and teachers alike, that girls are less likely to want be involved in STEM career paths – or that they will find it too tough.
An attitude overhaul – for both women and men – is needed if we are to close the STEM gender gap. Through better education and encouragement of both genders, we can chip away at antiquated attitudes and create a more equal workplace.
The bottom line is that women are just as capable as men. People often ask, ‘Why should more women get into STEM?’ It’s like asking why women should be doctors. These ongoing drives to get women into science and technology will continue to happen until the question no longer needs to be asked.
Coding @ school
From a practical standpoint, encouraging girls to get into STEM ultimately starts with education. In school, coding should be mandatory for everyone; complex problem solving and critical thinking should be part of everyday life. This will go a long way to defusing the myth that STEM is for boys.
Coding is great because it develops different parts of the brain, so even if children don’t go on to study STEM subjects, coding will still be useful from a skills perspective – particularly as the workplace becomes more reliant on technology.
One of the biggest blocks to making this change will be teachers. Some teachers are unconsciously biased about girls and STEM. As children, boys are told they’re smart whilst girls are told they’re beautiful – right from an early age unconscious bias is instilled and this still happens in primary schools today.
This translates beyond childhood and into exam years and the world of work. The cycle perpetuates the age-old view: that women are better suited to social and artistic careers and would struggle making tough leadership decisions or solving complex math problems.
Awareness drives like National Coding Week are crucial. Many teachers will also not have the skills to teach coding themselves and it’s important that individuals with the skills have the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to those who need it most.
Businesses have a crucial role to play too – communicating which digital skills they will need from the future workforce and providing training and resources to schools to support better education in these areas.
Seeing is believing
This is a change that must happen; teachers, businesses and individuals all need to adapt. If nothing changes, we’ll continue to see both a gender and a skills imbalance in the workforce.
Ultimately, to be something, you need to see something. This issue is reflective of the lack of female role models in technology and STEM as a whole. Male leaders dominate the field; we need more of them sponsoring women’s career development and advocating for their advancement if women are to have long and rewarding careers in STEM.
Studies show that with sponsorship, women in STEM are 200% more likely to have their ideas implemented. Diverse teams are shown time and again to be more creative, innovative and effective. It’s time to make diverse teams the norm, rather than the exception.
Young girls often feel like they don’t have a place in STEM, so they don’t choose to study for STEM qualifications. To make a change, we need women who have climbed up the STEM ladder to showcase themselves and their career choice.
They need to show young girls that working in STEM is cool! It’s rewarding, and women belong in the industry.
About the author
Tara O’Sullivan is CMO of Skillsoft.