How will women feature in the UK's digital future?

This is a guest blog from Cath Goulding, head of information security at Nominet, the company responsible for the .uk internet infrastructure. Here, she discusses the recent report from the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee and the importance of addressing the skills gap and encouraging more women into IT.

The Make or break: The UK’s digital future report from the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee sets out a challenge to the incoming government: to secure the UK’s position as a digital leader.  In 2011, the digital sector was worth an estimated £105 billion in gross value added to the UK economy. In 2013, a report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that the size of the digital economy was almost double official estimates. The pace, scale and breadth of technological change could mean huge opportunity – but there’s also a huge risk of missing out if we don’t have the strategies, infrastructure and skills to support this. We are – the report notes – at a tipping point.

One of the key challenges is ensuring enough people have the right skills to drive this digital transformation. There is a shortage of medium and high-level digital skills in the UK, and the need will only grow, with the digital workforce expected to increase by 39% by 2030.

The lack of women in digital careers exacerbates this skills shortage. Women make up less that 30% of the IT workforce, and this is seen as “drastically holding back the UK from fulfilling its economic potential”.  Nominet’s own report estimated the net benefit of encouraging more women into IT at £2.6 billion a year.

To do this, we need to address the social and cultural attitudes that put women off IT-related subjects at a very young age. It’s acceptable -almost cool – for schoolgirls to say, “Oh, I’m rubbish at maths.” Yet the same thing would hardly ever be said about reading, for example. I didn’t come to IT through an initial interest in computers, but I was always interested in problem solving. I did a maths degree, and know other women working in IT who followed the same route. As the report notes, there is “a very strong talent pipeline imperative”, and if we “can ‘crack the issue’ of getting more girls into those types of career, there could be huge business benefits.”

We also need to emphasise the breadth and variety of IT-related jobs. IT skills can be a secret weapon for women in getting into their desired field –  whether it’s medicine, design, law, game development, education, marketing, or anything else. When Nominet visited a local girls’ school as part of our Girls in IT campaign, the students listed tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook as the places they’d most like to work. Yet they also said they didn’t see IT as an interesting subject or career choice. Research we conducted showed that only 13% of girls report being ‘inspired’ to consider a career in IT, and 40% believe it would be ‘male dominated’.  The industry’s reputation among young women suffers from mixed perceptions and a lack of role models.

Fortunately, the industry is waking up to these issues. Last month, I was honoured to be named Security Champion of the Year at the inaugural Women in IT Awards. The award was presented by Betty Webb – a Bletchley Park codebreaker. When you think of the work of Bletchley Park, you might come up with names such as Alan Turing, Albert ‘Dilly’ Knox and Tommy Flowers. However, the majority of staff working there during the war were women. Their roles were crucial to breaking the German Enigma codes and building the first programmable electronic computer, ‘Colossus’. 

Despite what the current stats might suggest, women have a proud history in this field. It’s critical that government, educators, and the tech industry ourselves work together to ensure a proud future.

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Almost 80% of those working in Bletchley were women. The team that broke the Abwehr Codes, those of the German Secret Service, "Dillies Filles", was all female. Unlike the contributions of Alan Turing, some of their work, together with some of the work of Joan Clarke, is still classified. Today GCHQ has a higher, albeit classified, proportion of women employees than almost any other large IT employer. There is clear evidence that if you wish to keep an operation secret you employ women and then give them terms and conditions that will reinforce their natural loyalty to those who give them an even break.