One of the key themes that came out London Technology Week, which took place on 15-19 June, was the importance of getting more women and girls interested in technology. It’s clear women have a key role to play in filling the skills gap in the tech sector, and if we can get this right, it will benefit not only industry, but the wider economy.
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However, there is no easy fix. The gender imbalance is a problem that has been acknowledged for years, and there are many laudable initiatives aimed at tackling the barriers and challenges to overcome, both cultural and practical. But to date, we have failed to move the needle.
It seems to me there are two crucial career stages we need to address if we’re to dramatically increase the number of women working in technology – entering the tech industry and returning to work after a career break.
Encouraging young women to begin a career in IT or to study science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects is the first step. Until we can overcome the uncertainty and doubt about what technology has to offer, we will never increase the number of women playing an active role in our industry.
First, we need to effectively communicate the benefits of a career in IT. Research by Averil MacDonald at Women in Science and Engineering (Wise) found that talking about the type of work scientists, technologists and engineers do, often doesn’t appeal to young women and girls.
Instead, engagement increases when girls are allowed to focus on how their attributes complement roles in these sectors and to identify with inspirational mentors and leaders.
Alongside this inspiration and encouragement, we need to offer the training and jobs that enable young women to develop appropriate skills. The European Commission campaign eSkills for Jobs is doing some great work in this area, raising awareness of the need for European citizens to improve their command of information and communications technology (ICT) skills for work.
The campaign is a response to the growing demand for ICT-skilled professionals, which is currently not met, despite high levels of unemployment in Europe.
The second career stage we must address is when women return from a career break. Organisations have often invested over a period of years in career development, but frequently women return to different roles or find their progression has stalled.
As an industry, we must do more to help these women return to their chosen career, at an appropriate level of seniority, and then ensure they have the support to continue to advance their careers.
We know that inspirational leaders are key to attracting women to the sector, so we need to help create those leaders, and get more women not only in the boardroom, but also in senior management positions.
There is no silver bullet for increasing the proportion of women in our sector, but we must not give up working to fix the problem. The potential benefits are enormous, and with concerted effort across industry and academia, we can make the progress that is so sorely needed.
Julian David is CEO of TechUK, the technology industry trade association.