Hack The Ceiling: How to close the gender gap in tech

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Women are under represented in digital technology occupations. It’s a given – a well-known, hardly news-worthy, fact.

Marie Stafford described the situation in her article for Campaign: despite being avid users of tech, women are dramatically underrepresented in the industry. In the UK, only 17% of IT specialists are women compared to a quarter of IT specialists in the US (not much better but at least a bit).

Beyond the doom and gloom, there’s much to be positive about when it comes to being a woman in technology.

The number of women in the technology industry is growing 238% faster than men.

More girls than ever are taking A-Levels and university courses in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, rising 45% in 2015 and again in 2016. Moreover, girls are achieving higher grades (nearly 80% A*- C) compared to boys (75% A*- C).

Fantastic initiatives exist. Many taking practical measures to promote the tech sector to women, offering training and free courses, and giving support and mentorship where possible. These include CodeFirst: Girls, #TechMums, the Returners Hub, Code Academy, Girls Who Code, the Mary Keller Network, GeekGirl Meetup, Women’s World Wide Web, not to mention our friends at FemTech Global.

And in fintech specifically, Innovate Finance’s survey revealed 48% of women believe fintech is a more attractive space for female talent and 35% also said female leaders had helped them achieve their career goals.

There is every reason to celebrate female tech talent in the UK – the leaders, pioneers, and smashers of glass at every level.

But we need to do much more.

There are plenty of statistics to show how challenging the tech industry remains for women.

The problem is, the gender imbalance starts early.

Despite the majority of girls saying they like technology lessons and believe that digital skills are important, according to a study from PwC, just 3% of those taking A-Levels or university degrees say a role in technology is their first choice in career. A further 27% say they would consider tech as a career but this is compared to 61% of boys.

So the first way to hack the ceiling is to make sure young women receive the same amount of information about tech careers as their male peers.

We also need to boost the visibility of diverse women role models

There is a lack of visible women role models in STEM subjects. Only 22% of students surveyed by PwC could name a famous woman in STEM. In fact, only 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women. An absurdly low number given how much opportunity exist in digital businesses.

Role models are essential. I know this first hand. The reason I first became interested in Starling was because of the number of incredible women it has working here.

We need to celebrate our women in tech, turn up the volume when they’re speaking, make sure they’re visible and their companies receive the kudos they deserve. Tech does not need to be a boy’s club, and companies do not need to have a brogrammer culture. As the women already here, we need to demonstrate this to aspiring technologists.

Moreover, as young women come through into junior roles, supporting their growth is imperative. Mentorship schemes, meet-ups, and networking events can do a lot to help women connect, learn, and gain confidence. A lot of these exist through women in tech groups, but making sure these become well-known, even house-hold names, could work wonders.

But of course, central to it all is ensuring that the pathways into technology are as diverse as the people wanting to work there.

Studying computer science isn’t for everyone. But given we need a further million people to join London’s tech scene alone by 2020, it’s no wonder the UK Government’s new Digital Strategy has focused on upskilling young people through digital and STEM education (not to mention mitigating the possible impact of Brexit upon digital businesses).

And apprenticeships might be a way to do that. Especially given how they enable people to learn through more practical, skills-focused ways.

Big companies are already stepping up to offer funded digital training and development opportunities, including digital apprenticeships. For instance, companies like BT are creating 1700 new apprenticeships and graduate jobs to help it support a culture of tech literacy in the UK.

Of course, some have said that the apprenticeship system actually reinforces inequalities in the workplace, funnelling young women into lower paid sectors compared to their male counterparts.  For instance, women account for 94% of childcare apprentices but less than 4% of those in engineering. The pay gap reflects this, with a difference of 9.4% between male and female salaries.  Moreover, in London, 16% of women report being out of work at the end of the apprenticeship compared to just 6% of men.

But this is why it’s essential to start challenging the barriers to entry early. To ensure that as we do ramp up to 2020, we’re encouraging women to think of technology as a potential career route.

To hack the ceiling, however, it’s not just about addressing every level of the pipeline.

It’s about transforming the narrative in tech as well.

Isabelle Demaude said, “There’s so much to be said for the impact of our choice of words can have on the message we want to convey.”

That’s why it’s so important to celebrate talent and success and the everyday #girlbosses we sit next to at work.

That’s why it’s so important that instead of focusing on the problems in tech, we focus on the solutions to them.

Isn’t that the point of the hacker mentality? To see how something’s been done and then do it better?

We need to talk about what’s possible. Because whilst women may still have to work twice as hard and twice as long, everything really is possible.

And if we’re bold – if we hack the ceilings and the walls and the cliffs and every other glass object in our way – we can inspire.

Change will happen.

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