Yesterday’s A-level results saw the number of young people taking IT-related subjects fall again. But the numbers that really stood out were the figures showing how many girls and boys took the exams.
In England, ten times as many boys as girls took Computing A-level: 3,697 compared to 302. This trend continued across the UK. There were 4,256 boys on the course across the country, and 454 girls.
The ICT A-level was less stark, but there were 7,339 boys on the ICT course, compared to 4,609 girls so the difference is still pretty huge.
The figures are a good illustration of how gender stereotyping and its consequences are impacting on IT. A recent report from the Women and Work Commission found gender stereotyping at schools is still too prevalent, and suggested that the schools inspection body Ofsted started to examine schools on the work they do to combat the tendency to subtly present technical subjects as things that boys do.
While the women in technology debate rages on, the number of young people in the UK that are actually interested in technology keeps falling. It’s an increasingly crucial part of our economy, and we need more of them to play a role – if we don’t have enough bright young things entering the profession, the sector and the UK economy will suffer. Getting girls involved will be an important part of ensuring we have a large enough tech workforce to meet our needs. We need them purely because of numbers – to fill the jobs – and because we need exciting, innovative new ideas.
These figures are not the only part of the story. Lots of today’s entrepreneurs and chief information officers didn’t take A-levels, or go to university. But they give an indication of the disparity in technology. It might be that you don’t think this disparity matters – there are certainly lots of people who think it doesn’t matter that girls don’t like IT, that’s just the way it is and it will never change. I happen to think that argument is totally misguided, but what matters is that the tech industry needs more people, and women are a largely untapped resource for it. Persuading girls that it is relevant to them, and that it’s something they can do, is going to be a crucial part of guaranteeing the sector’s continuing success. The UK technology sector just won’t stay competitive without them.
How the sector actually goes about getting more girls on to IT courses and into IT jobs is another question, and will probably take decades. It’s a little worrying that early indications on the new, vocational IT diploma show that it too is still male-dominated. What matters is that the sector recognises that it needs to do something, and makes the effort to recruit the staff we’re going to rely on.