Visible role models key to tackling the digital skills shortage

GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Gemma Foster, head of service delivery at Visualsoft, explains how ensuring female role models are visible and accessible is how the tech sector can work to close the digital skills gap. 

The number of women on the boards of top UK-listed companies has risen by 50% in five years but ‘significant progress’ still needs to be made in leadership roles. Progress has been made and there are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 350, although there are 16 so-called “one and done” companies – with only one female representative.

In the UK, women account for just 17% of workers in the tech sector, with female programmers and software developers dropping to 13% according to the Office of National Statistics. Companies still have a lot more to do to counter the perception people have of those that work in tech, and what working in tech really looks like day to day.

Not only is it difficult to attract female staff but also to retain them – 45% of women leave at a faster rate than men in the same position.

The pandemic has done nothing to help the problem. Research suggests that tech workers have been hit just as hard in terms of the division of labour within the home, with 54% of the 203 IT professionals questioned saying their household chores and caring activities had increased either “more” or “much more” than for their male partners, while only 9% indicated that their partners had disproportionately borne the brunt.

So what can be done and how do we get there?

I didn’t initially envision going into tech, science was my first love – I grew up wanting to be Dana Scully from the X-Files. I chose science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects right through my education including computer science at A-level and completed a GNVQ in engineering and electronics, going on to study applied science and forensic investigation at university. Even after all that training I still ended up in a retail position due to a lack of opportunities at the time.

I call my move into the tech sector ‘a happy accident’. A recruiter contacted me and convinced me to apply for the job despite not having any technical background. Luckily the company I interviewed for was really open-minded in their approach and decided to take a chance on me, I’ve now been at Visualsoft for almost 10 years.

Not being ‘classically trained’ with a wealth of tech experience behind me meant I had to work harder to gain the trust and respect of some of my colleagues, especially in a male-dominated team. It wasn’t until they saw a positive change and results, did they begin to accept me as an asset to the team rather than an imposter.

Teach kids the skills they need to work in a post-pandemic digital world

Recent reports have uncovered the true extent of the digital skills shortage even calling it “catastrophic” and a “disaster”. The Learning and Work Institute said the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. And there’s still a gender gap in digital skills, with young women accounting for just 22% of GCSE entrants in IT subjects, 17% of A-Level entrants, 23% of apprenticeship starts in ICT, and 16% of undergraduate starts in computer science.

It’s essential that technology has more prominence in the school curriculum and companies develop partnerships with schools and colleges, introducing age-appropriate learning and projects. If they’re serious about nurturing a talent pool, it is the tech companies that should too take responsibility in contributing to shaping the employees they would like to hire in the future.

By providing girls with the role models and support to take STEM subjects at school it will allow the next generation to enter the job market at a more senior level and improve their chances of early progression.

Highlight inspirational role models 

As I think of my daughter and a recent school project she was assigned, it’s hard not to think about the lack of female role models in the school curriculum. My five-year old’s project ‘not all superheroes wear capes’ focused on the moon landing, heavily on Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldridge. Of course, these men are incredible role models, but I couldn’t help but think, what about Katherine Johnson, a mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent US crewed spaceflights?

Or any of the women who worked on the code to put the man on the moon. All 12 people who walked on the moon were men. But among the 400,000 people who made it possible, there were numerous unsung women, from computer engineers to mathematicians.

Let’s give kids representation and role models. It’s important to nurture children from a young age. I love that I can give my daughter a role model and I hope my background shows her that taking subjects you enjoy and you’re passionate about will allow you to excel.

Employers must be open to transferrable skills

Having an unconventional entry into the tech space myself, I think employers should be more open to transferrable skills and promote their opportunities to professionals in other industries. I consider myself a problem solver above everything else, but I’m also organised, analytical, I can lead a team and translating that into what I bring to this role enabled me to widen my opportunity pool.

And finally…

For any women thinking of taking that step into tech or striving to develop digital skills, be proactive when looking for opportunities. When you can contribute to the company’s goals and objectives, don’t be afraid to step up and take ownership, this demonstrates leadership, accountability and allows you to stay relevant in the company and learn new skills in the process.

You’re not alone, we’re out there, make connections, share experiences and knowledge, feelings of isolation can lead to imposter syndrome and lack of confidence–don’t let this stop you, you’ve got this!

I’m privileged to work alongside some amazing women at Visualsoft, from whom I draw inspiration on a daily basis.

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