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Interview: Tackling gender diversity could solve the skills gap, says Burbidge

Tackling the lack of gender diversity in the tech industry could help close the skills gap, but there is a long way to go to solve either, says Eileen Burbidge

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: On the path to diversity in tech

Addressing the diversity gap in the technology industry could go a long way in closing digital skills gaps in the UK.

Eileen Burbidge, chair of Tech City and government special envoy for fintech, says including more people in the industry widens the pool of talented people to choose from.

Taking gender as an example, Burbidge says: “Theoretically, if we could address the diversity gap, it would go a long way to helping the skills gap because when we are not wholly inclusive or attracting 50% of the population, that obviously contributes to the skills gap because we could double our skills force.”

The same could be said for the inclusion of any group that is underrepresented in the tech industry, says Burbidge, and, despite the initiatives in place to increase diversity and inclusion in the tech sector, more still needs to be done.

Tech skill and diversity

Many companies are beginning to realise that addressing gaps in diversity can lead to an increase in productivity and profitability, but those who choose to address the issue fall into two camps, according to Burbidge – those who do it because it will be good for society and those who do it because it is “better for their bottom line”.

Firms are also starting to realise that by having a more diverse team working on products and services they provide, the more likely they are to reflect the audience that is using them and in turn appeal to more people.

“Some people are going to be driven by business performance, and others will be because they’re motivated by doing the right thing because they realise that for society this will be better overall,” says Burbidge. “Both I think are going to be helpful.”

But part of addressing this diversity gap not only lies in ensuring technology teams are inviting or inclusive, but encouraging young people earlier on in the technology pipeline to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects.

Addressing the UK’s skills needs

In 2014, the UK introduced a computing curriculum to teach young people concepts such as computational thinking and coding to help fuel the UK’s homegrown tech talent pipeline, which is becoming increasingly important in the wake of Brexit.

But many argue the computing curriculum in the UK is too inflexible, leaving young people without the skills they need when they graduate as the industry has moved past what they learnt.

Many children in the education system today will end up in roles that do not currently exist, making skills gaps inevitable as we can’t be certain what the future employment landscape needs.

“The UK has actually been really strong in at least trying to anticipate what’s needed or trying to address it,” says Burbidge.

Digital skills are becoming a vital part of everyday life as technology makes its way into every job and every home, she says.

Addressing the skills gap

Burbidge points out the UK has taken measures to try to address the skills gap in the UK, including promises in Autumn Budget to boost skills in the technology sector, as well as being the first G20 country to introduce computing into its curriculum.

The talent shortage looms over the nation despite this, but Burbidge argues the skills gap in the UK is “no more dire” than the rest of the world, and is slowly making progress.

Part of this progress is through collaboration with initiatives such as Tech City and through launching collaborative efforts such as the Institute of Coding to better understand and address the skills needs across the industry as a whole.

The government also launched a survey asking any company which employs digital professionals to help the government to understand what digital skills are needed now and what skills the UK might need to be equipped with in the future.

“Fortunately, the government recognises it might not always know what types of policy measures or what ways to address changing and innovation should be and so it looks to get that from the ecosystem,” says Burbidge.

The digital generation

Though many young people are growing up with knowledge of how to use technology, the term “digital native” clouds the difference between knowing to use technology and knowing the implications of using technology.

Many are concerned young people need to be taught about concepts such as digital ethics, data privacy, appropriate online behaviour and cyber security – topics Burbidge says take time for firms and policy makers to adapt to as technology adoption accelerates.

But she argues in many cases it will be younger people who will “ask the questions and help drive the other answers” because they are “fully immersed” in the technology ecosystem from a young age and have been experiencing the consequences.

“Since younger people are growing up digitally literate, I think they will also be more mindful,” she says. “They’ll be the ones feeling the effects more sensitively than us when it’s not quite second nature.”

Read more about digital skills

  • The number of people in the UK choosing to do ICT apprenticeships has dropped over the past year despite the government’s apprenticeship levy.
  • Anne Milton told the BETT 2018 education technology show that to fill the skills gap, children need to grow up to be more than just consumers of digital.

When trying to adapt to the changes technology makes to society, Burbidge thinks the UK’s efforts are some of the best for a country run by a central government.

Comparing the UK to the US, Burbidge, who was born and raised in the US, claims that although some of the states in the US are more “forward thinking”, the central government itself can be “abysmal” for adapting to and leading change.

The UK “leads” in this, according to Burbidge, who claims that although Theresa May is not particularly “digitally minded”, policy makers in the government are still “continuing the good work that was started even before 2010” to make the UK more digitally focused.

Burbidge pointed out that one of the only meetings May had at the World Economic Forum 2018 in Davos was surrounding cyber security, ethics and artificial intelligence.

“She has a pretty fine line to walk with respect to national security, as well as supporting the digital economy,” says Burbidge, who claims the government recognises “the future of the UK economy depends on being in a supportive place for the digital sector”.

Read more on Diversity in IT

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