Gender gap in tech jobs threatens to widen skills gap

The “worrying” under representation of women in tech related roles could be contributing to the IT skills gap, and hurting the economy.

In a debate in the House of Commons yesterday, MPs debated the lack of presence of women in science and technology related jobs.

According to MP Valerie Vaz, the cutting of government funding to the UK Resource Centre which provides support for women in science, education and technology (SET) roles is hampering attempts to create equality in the workplace, and affecting the economy.

She highlighted statistics from the UKRC which show that only 5.3% of all working women, or one in 20, are employed in a science, engineering and technology occupations.  This is compared with one in three men.

“Nearly 100,000 female STEM graduates are either unemployed or economically inactive,” Vaz said in a Commons debate.  Speaking mainly about the impact on scientists, the situation is the same in tech related fields, and its effects are wide reaching.

“That is bad for the economy,” Vaz continued, “particularly in engineering, which is a predominantly male workforce, with many engineers over 50 and due to retire in the next 10 years.” 

Indeed in the IT industry this has been particularly evident, with various areas, such as mainframe development for example, in dire need of an influx of highly trained staff with a retiring workforce not being replaced by a younger generation.

While this is a problem for all genders, the inability to attract women into tech based roles is threatening to expand what is generally regarded as a significant skills gap in the IT industry and other areas such as engineering.

As the likes Google’s Eric Schmidt and IEEE president Moshe Kam, speaking to TechEye in the past, have pointed out, there is a problem at school and higher education level.   However the problem is magnified in terms of difficulties in actually attracting women into tech related roles following education in STEM subjects. 

According to Vaz there is not enough being done by the government, and a drop in funding to the UKRC brought about by government spending cuts could risk hampering the organisation’s ability to support such aims.  She urged Business, Innovation and Skills minister David Willets to “think again” about cutting grants for the UKRC, and help support attracting more women to roles in STEM subject jobs.

According to Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) the number of women in tech jobs is “worrying”.

“There is still a worrying gender gap, not only in technology sectors but the sciences too,” he told TechEye.

“A big part of this is simply the skills pipeline – it’s still the case that only around one in ten graduates in the various technology and engineering disciplines are women, and although it’s improving in fields like maths and physics, which are other feeder subjects for the tech industry, we’re still a long way from parity.”

“So the first thing we need to focus on is getting more women in workforce.” 

“This is worth doing in its own right,” he says, “but there’s also the obvious point that we’re potentially wasting a huge amount of talent if we don’t.” 

This in turn creates a situation where competitivity on a national scale can even be affected.

“Every time someone who’s had thousands of pounds spent on their education is prevented or deterred from doing a job they’d be great at, the economy suffers, so we definitely need to do more to portray high-tech sectors as inclusive.”

“We know from investors and employers that a dynamic and diverse workforce is one of the key factors in terms of where to put a company’s time and money, so there’s every reason to make the effort.”

According to Trudy Norris-Grey, chair of UKRC, who herself has worked in top level roles at Oracle and Sun Microsystems in the past, there is plenty of work going on to tackle the problem.

“I would say from an industry point of view there is definitely a desire to work in a concerted and ambitious way to increase the number even further.”

“Technology related companies have a vested in securing their resources of the future.”

Norris-Grey seemed reluctant to fully broach the topic of funding for the UKRC brought up by Vaz, but said that there is still a lot for the organisation to do.

“We are making progress,” she says.  “It would be good to go faster, and it would be good to have more people doing A levels in STEM related subjects.”

“The biggest area where we have in crease in taking STEM subjects is with girls.  We do have support, the job now is to get the number right up to where we need them.”

“The biggest pool of untapped resource is girls,” she told TechEye.

One of the barriers, she says is making the subject ‘cool’, and tech is, traditionally at least, seen as a more male-oriented area.

“We need to enable teachers and parents as well as the girls themselves to see that taking subjects such as maths, biology and IT, can be ‘cool’, and they are a stepping stone to cool careers, and cool earning capabilities.”

However problems still remaining in attracting university leavers, and even in retaining jobs.

“There needs to be a culture of engaging women in the way that they need to be engaged.”

Nandita Gurjar, Senior Vice President and Group Head – HR at Infosys, told TechEye that the number of women in the organisation has been rising steadily.

“Currently at Infosys women comprise 34% of our 150,000 workforce, however this was not always the case,” Gurjar said.

“In 2000, when the company’s level of women in the workforce was 12 percent, Infosys decided to adopt a range of initiatives to increase its quota of women.”

“One of our most successful initiatives is the Infosys Women Inclusivity Network (IWIN), a scheme that promotes a gender-sensitive work environment, to help manage the unique aspirations and needs of women.”

“For example, it provides avenues for vocational, personal and psychological counsel to enable the professional and personal development of women.”

“This includes seminars, programmes and networking events held by women in senior positions who give advice to their colleagues on how they reach their role and for those who have children, on how they can successfully balance the demands of family and working life,” Gurjar said.

Gurjar also pointed out that by supporting gender diversity, the skills gap in the UK could be closed up.

“According to e-skills UK, the country will need around half a million people to take on careers in technology within the next five years,” she said. “E-skills also revealed a potential solution with its findings that women make up just 18 per cent of the current telecoms and IT workforce and it is necessary to create an environment which encourages women to take up a career in technology.”

This will involve more support from the government.

“Technology businesses need to work with the Government and local authorities to promote the industry as an attractive option for women,” Gurjar said. “Schemes like Computer Club’s for Girls (CC4G), and Girls in IT set up by e-skills, help in inspiring girls to consider a life in technology, using after-school clubs to bring technology to life.”

“We actively support these initiatives in UK and believe that by getting girls interested in IT from a young age, the currently low uptake of technology-based GSCE and A-level qualifications by women will begin to be tackled.

“However, businesses must also look to make their corporate culture more appealing for women if they are to attract and maintain a strong female workforce,” Gurjar said.