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Positive spike for Computing A-levels but tech sector continues to fall behind on diversity

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As A-level students opened their grades this week, there was some positive news for Computing, with the subject seeing an increase in candidates, however, there is still a long way to go before this translates into a gender-balanced tech workforce.

Computing saw a 13.5% increase in student numbers this year, but the subject still has the biggest gender gap. Despite the number of female candidates increasing almost ninefold over the past 10 years, 82% of students sitting the Computing A-level this year were male.

A-level studentsProgress in education is slow, and so is the rate of change within tech businesses. SheCanCode spoke with several businesses, that agreed the tech sector may be known for rapid innovation, however, it continues to fall behind when it comes to the issue of diversity.

Tech sector historically weighted in favour of men

Marta Blazejewska, Director of Sales at software house STX Next, said the tech industry has historically been weighted in favour of men: “At present, just 19% of tech workers are women and 22% of tech directors are women. The first step in addressing this divide is assisting women in reaching a far healthier work-life balance.

“When the pandemic started, working mothers were left with less time to complete their work, yet in many cases, targets remained the same. It’s important to be flexible in this respect, which means adjusting targets, goals and expectations based on people’s practical capabilities, not just their skillset.”

As the dust begins to settle on the pandemic and we look towards a post-Covid-19 future, remote and hybrid working has become the new normal.

Blazejewska noted that many IT roles can be done flexibly and remotely with no impact on the quality of work: “It’s about time we left the idea of the traditional working day in the past.”

“Employees will often have to attend to their parental duties or other matters at hours of the day outside of your company’s control, especially if you have a hybrid working strategy. But hybrid working doesn’t just mean offering the opportunity to work from home; it means adapting to people’s lives. Embrace this by supporting women and giving them the opportunity to weave their parental responsibilities into their working day and jumping back online later to finish that project or task.”

Claire Sanders, Manager, Citizen Developer Partner Program at Project Management Institute (PMI), said the latest figures on female representation in the tech industry leave a lot to be desired.

“While the topic of women in tech continues to evolve, it is disheartening to see the current percentage of the sector’s workforce that are women is just 19% (vs. 49% of total UK workers). The urgent need for change has been well-documented, but these words must be matched with action – especially in a society where technology is omnipresent.”

“Citizen development – encouraging non-IT-trained employees, including those without prior coding experience, to develop business solutions via the use of low-code and no-code platforms – can unlock progress in this area. By introducing low-code or no-code platform training into IT studies – from primary school up to university – the UK education system can give girls and young women an early start and show them what is possible with the right skills.”

Sanders said PMI encourages organisations to continue the upskilling process and continually refresh  low-code and no-code proficiency via lifelong learning: “This is the type of coherent long-term approach required to drive sustainable, systemic change.”

“By empowering more women to pursue careers in technology – or, in the case of citizen development, to incorporate IT activities into their everyday roles – the STEM sector can ensure its future, and impact on society is fair and equal. More diversity in tech brings balance to the table, and ensures the industry is thinking about every part of society when developing solutions.”

“Additionally, the prospect of emerging technologies, such as AI, institutionalising the same gender biases as society at large, risks becoming a reality if we don’t encourage more diversity in the teams developing them,” Sanders added.

“The potential for well-governed, corporate-driven citizen development is unlimited. While the benefits of citizen development can be felt throughout a whole organisation, it is the potential to help more women  develop tech skills, and the opportunities it offers to future generations, that may leave the greatest legacy.”

Jonathan Lister Parsons, Chief Technology Officer at PensionBee, agreed and said: “It’s no secret that the technology industry has a history of low diversity, so opening up technical roles to more women is crucial in welcoming a wider range of transferable skills and experiences into our sector.”

“At PensionBee, we’re pleased to see 30% female representation within our technology team, compared to an industry average of 19%, but we know more needs to be done when it comes to achieving equal opportunities. Businesses need to address biases, nurture talent early and provide more role models within the industry if they are to build a workforce that’s representative of today’s society.”

Parsons explained that around half of PensionBee’s team has had a non-standard path into technology. He said these people were pursuing careers in completely different fields before retraining at coding bootcamps or within PensionBee as part of its ‘Program’, which aims to recruit people who wouldn’t usually consider a career in pensions.

“Building and maintaining a diverse team is of central importance to us as we know that diverse teams build diverse products, which ultimately serve our customers better – and fulfil our mission of helping everyone save for a happy retirement,” he added.

Putting diversity at the forefront

Increasing diversity within the workforce may be a no-brainer for some companies, however, retaining such talent once found is a whole other story.

Nabila Salem, President at Revolent, said: “Of course, putting diversity and inclusion at the forefront of your business, and weaving it into all processes and departments is not only the right thing to do, but it can also help widen the net, remove limitations, and encourage you to look further afield for talent.”

“Not only does this mean you have a much wider and richer pool of candidates to choose from, but when you have views and perspectives from a range of people from different backgrounds and social groups, ideation sessions benefit from out-of-the-box thinking which can result in increased productivity and success.”

According to Salem, once a company has found the right talent, retaining it is the next big challenge: “From my experience, my top tip is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to provide you with feedback and take action as soon as possible. If you aren’t able to implement certain things or it may take a while to—be transparent! Informed employees are happy employees, and this is one of the most important steps to retaining your talent.”

Victoria James, HR Director at digital innovation agency  Great State, said: “We believe by having a diverse team with different thought processes and opinions on how to create, solve or do things, our work is of a higher quality and more innovative. The products and services we provide are for a diverse market, so we need a diverse team to represent and create the best outcome for that market.”

A role in tech is a strong career move

Businesses agree that deciding to join a tech team is a strong career move, specifically for women choosing to train in software.

“With a 50/50 gender split between our 158 global employees at Scoro, being female in our software company is not unusual,” said Stina Pentjärv, People Operations Specialist at Scoro.

“It should not feel extraordinary to be a woman applying for a job in tech, or even more specifically in a software development role. In fact, it should be something that women naturally consider as an option for them and their career, as there are so many great and fulfilling roles across the software industry.”

“We are proud to be the kind of company where our extended management team consists of 15 women out of 31, so the culture of gender diversity really comes from the top down.”

To attract and retain talent, Pentjärv said Scoro has initiatives such as a four-day work week: “This might enable those who have small children at home to continue to pursue their full-time career in tech, or for those where part-time may never have been an option; this completely free Friday with no reduction in salary allows those employees to gain an extra day of childcare costs back.”

Devin Blewitt, Chief Information Officer at the digital training provider ITonlinelearning, said: “For anyone who develops their tech skills in order to handle software effectively, it goes without saying that your career prospects are strong and that your knowledge will be in constant demand. But for women, in particular, this is a particularly strong career move given that many employers are specifically asking for female candidates over male ones.”

“An example of this can be seen with the dating app Bumble, which specifically seeks aspiring female software developers who they can train up before offering permanent positions. The BBC is another employer that has done similar, via their “Step Into Tech” program (which although not currently running) specifically focused on developing women who wanted a career as a software engineer. Schemes such as this are always running and can be found with just a little research or through specialist hirers such as SheCancode.”

A career where you can bring about change

The tech industry has the opportunity to build products that both generate revenue and change the way we live, according to Stephen Frost, CEO of Included.

“Those who are investing in tech have the ability to determine how inclusion manifests in this space. If they choose to build diverse teams from the very beginning, these teams can go on to crack new markets and build innovative products and solutions. Without this, the lack of diversity in a company will be felt by the end users once the product lands.”

He added: “We can see this in Kodak’s use of the ‘Shirley Card’ that used a photo of a white woman and therefore built bias against Black people and people with darker skin tones into the way their products functioned. We can also see it in these automatic hand dryers that take longer to respond to hands with darker skin tones.”

“Groupthink is a significant barrier to long-term growth. Organisations must include diversity of thought in their teams. Tech companies can often be born of like-minded people, then meaning that as they grow they are in a ‘diversity debt’. Proactive inclusion is a key way to address this.”

Across all subjects, the number of A-level students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland receiving top grades declined this year. 36.4% of entries were awarded an A or A*, down from 44.8% in 2021 but higher than in 2019. This is the first year that students have taken summer exams since 2019.

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