Sweden’s Digitalisation Commission has proposed writing off student loans for female IT students to encourage more women to study technology subjects.
This has been proposed to balance the gender scales in the IT industry.
“Our analysis shows that out of 158 university level IT degrees, about half have a gender balance of less than 15% female,” Lena Carlsson, executive director of the Digitalisation Commission, told Computer Weekly. “A lot of the courses we looked at have only 3%, 4% and, in some cases, 0% women.”
The Digitalisation Commission acts under the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation and analyses opportunities and threats to the digitisation of the Nordic country. It categorises the lack of women in IT as a threat and lays out its debt cancellation proposal as part of a wider report on driving digitisation in Sweden.
The loan write-offs would be applied to women who complete a higher education IT degree and would cover a maximum of three years of student loans. Although university courses are already free in Sweden, student loans are typically used to cover living expenses while obtaining an education. There are no proposed changes to how women apply for and gain entrance to the courses.
“Our idea is to try to identify the degree courses where there are less than 15% women at the moment and apply this incentive until that particular course reaches a gender balance of 30% women and 70% men,” said Carlsson. “Then there would be sufficient momentum to start self-sustaining development.”
The commission estimates that a maximum of 5,000 women would be covered by the scheme and it would cost the country between SEK565m and SEK1,044m (£440-£813m) depending on how quickly the goals could be reached.
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Carlsson said although the Swedish IT industry is trying to recruit more women, a major issue is the lack of women graduating with relevant degrees. On average, 23% of ICT-related degrees are completed by women, with computer science and programming attracting some of the lowest numbers.
The rate of women studying ICT subjects has been increasing by 0.6% annually, but this is not enough to drive fast change, according to Carlsson.
The proposal of writing off study loans on a gender basis has received some backlash on social media in Sweden, but Carlsson said a similar approach could be applied to any subject where one sex is under-represented. The Digitalisation Commission also emphasised the wider impact of digitisation on society as a whole.
“Because digitalisation is happening across the board in society, it becomes a pertinent issue if you only have a few women contributing to what is basically setting the stage for the society of the future,” said Carlsson. “We view digitalisation as the single most important transformational trend in society until 2020/2025. As such, it is really important that women are involved in the development of these services.”
The Digitalisation Commission’s report suggested actions on six strategic areas it believes should be prioritised: Regulation, skills, infrastructure, data-driven innovation, digital security and integrity, and central government engagement in promoting digitalisation.
The report was presented to Sweden’s IT minister Mehmet Kaplan on 1 December 2015 for review.