Same problem, new solutions for STEM industries
Recruiting women in STEM When employers talk about the lack of women in technology, it’s often raised in the context of the skills gap.
Recruiting women often comes down to the skills gap. “How can we fill the roles we have, if we can’t access half the population?” goes the argument.
The problem isn’t new, of course: looking back over the past decade, the numbers of women in the tech workforce has never pushed beyond a meagre 17%. But dig a little deeper, and the debate becomes far broader: a diverse workforce is more open, more creative, more productive – and the people in it more engaged and excited by what they do.
Employers in the digital world are problem solvers by nature
If the solutions that employers have tried before to improve the gender balance haven’t delivered, their instinct is to find new and better solutions.
That’s why BT, HPE and Tata Consultancy Services collaborated through the Tech Partnership on My Tech Future – a project to help employers and teachers understand why girls shy away from a tech career and develop a range of improved interventions that will appeal more to them.
"More than half of girls enjoy ICT lessons at primary school, but loose interest by secondary school."
We wanted to address the problem from a basis of knowledge. So we commissioned research specialists Childwise to consult with a wide range of individuals, including girls aged 9-18, parents, teachers and women in industry, to discover what can be done to make this industry more appealing to young women, and help increase the number who choose to become involved in tech (see box, below).
We discovered that over half of girls enjoy their ICT lessons at primary school, but as they make the transition to secondary school, they quickly lose interest – often describing their lessons as boring, repetitive and out of date.
Parents are unaware of how girls' strengths could translate
Technology is still regarded by most of the women we spoke to as a ‘non-traditional career’, and so one of the challenges is to change the perception of parents and teachers themselves to start seeing tech as a mainstream career – which it may not have been when they were in their teens or first entering the job market. Parents, we found, often lack the knowledge to help. They appreciate that the range and diversity of career opportunities is far greater nowadays, but too many are simply unaware as to how their daughter’s strengths could translate into a modern tech career.
"Parents often lack the knowledge or confidence to help."
It was especially illuminating to hear from women who work in tech careers today. In most cases, they had been guided initially by parents and teachers towards familiar and traditional choices - for example, accountancy, teaching and medicine – and only at a later point, did they discover tech.
Two of the successful women in our study specifically referenced their fathers as the driving force behind their choices. The fact that dad knew his way around the industry gave these women a priceless insight, not just into the sort of work they could be doing, but also into how to get there: which firms to apply to, whether to choose an apprenticeship or a degree, how to navigate the application process.
Younger role models are even more relateable
Given that we can’t find a parent-expert for every child, getting real-life role models into the classroom has to be a vitally important way of showing all young people that jobs in tech are achievable, and could be part of their decision set. If those role models are female, so much the better – just by their presence, women have a powerful effect in breaking down misconceptions. Younger role models can also be particularly effective: someone in his or her first job is more relatable for students than an older figure – even someone of thirty can seem remote to a GCSE class.
"We need role models because ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’."
Where to find these digital role models? Parents or older siblings are a natural resource – many schools actively request volunteers from within their immediate contact group. Local businesses are often keen to contribute: if schools contact their local tech companies, large or small, they are very likely to receive a warm response. Plus, a number of organisations – including Founders4Schools, Inspiring the Future and STEM Ambassadors - specialise in providing speakers and role models for schools.
It’s often said that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Role models make sure that students can see - and they can make all the difference.