Government needs to make technology exciting for women

The government must make technology roles more exciting to attract females into the industry, says HMRC's Mark Dearnley

The government must make technology roles more exciting to attract women to the industry, according to HMRC's Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO), Mark Dearnley.

Any organisations that wishes to attract more women to IT, including government departments, should make technology roles more exciting, possibly by rebranding what it is to be an engineer.  

Dearnley, who joined HMRC in the summer of 2013, inherited an IT team in which women account for 45% of staff, but he is keen to increase this even more.

“But we are not doing well at the really senior team. Today we have one. That is not good enough, not through lack of trying, just haven’t had the right candidates yet, so really important we build from here,” said Dearnley, speaking on a TechUK panel on inspiring the next generation of female leaders.

“But I think we can actually potentially break the 50% barrier because we offer something special in the civil service,” he added.

While some organisations – the HMRC included – are actively trying to hire women for IT and digital roles, women are often not putting themselves forward for the jobs.

Dearnley said that encouraging more women into technology is not something HMRC can do overnight, but a multi-year project that involves trying to attract more girls to digital from a young age.

“How do we take the excitement of digital to make it more exciting for girls – and youth in general?” asked Dearnley. “There’s a lot to be done here in changing how what we do is perceived. The different ways in, and different ways you can move around to make it an exciting profession to be in.”

Rebranding IT

Rachel Neaman, CEO of Go ON UK, agreed. Also speaking on the panel, she noted the work the Government Digital Service (GDS) has done to break the divide between what is digital and what is IT and how they can both work together.

“I think from my side, what I’m really interested in, is how you harness the opportunities of the internet and digital to solve problems, whether they’re business or societal problems,” said Neaman who doesn’t come from a technical background herself. “How do you actually get digital to be the way we think about how we live our lives in this increasingly digital world?”

The term "digital" may attract more women to technology than "engineering" or "IT".

“For me, digital opened an incredible creative digital world. There are some big business issues we’re all facing, but can we use digital an tech to help solve them? Rather than starting from the point of view of ‘I need an engineering degree’ to participate in a digital world,” she continued.

A question from the audience also touched on this point of whether rebranding technology and engineering to make it more creative and humanitarian might attract a wider range of people – including women – to the jobs market.

We need engineers

But Claire Vyvyan, general manager and executive director of large institutions at Dell UK, is not so sure. She said she needs to hire engineers and people with strengths in maths and science.

“There is a divide between digital and hard tech,” she said. “If you want to know how stuff works – how the iPad works, how it connects to the internet and how data moves across the network - then fundamentally you need a mind that’s more mathematical and engineering in my view.

“If you’re applying the technology that’s more of a digital agenda, then you can probably come from more walks of life,” she says.  

But Vyvyan suggests that enabling flexible working in organisations would be a good step to encourage more women into technology and actively help to keep them if or when they choose to start a family.

“But it’s a huge culture change, to be measured for what they do, rather than when they do it,” she said, adding that IT enables women – and men – to finish at 4pm, pick up the children from school before logging back on again.

Jacqueline de Rojas, area vice-president Northern Europe at Citrix, agreed that flexible working will allow woman to work from anywhere and live and work better in terms of a work/life balance.

“Flexibility for a mobile work force is super important,” she said, but she also pointed to the disparity between technology at home and technology in the classroom.

The government implemented a new computing curriculum this September, but unless there is more technology in the classroom, children won’t be able to harness the trends and apply the good practice they’ve learnt in the classroom.

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