It’s time to stop making excuses. Getting more women in tech must underpin efforts to create an inclusive digital economy
When Apple CEO Tim Cook made a rare appearance in London last month, he had one simple and very powerful message to share: we need more women in tech, and there is no excuse for failing to achieve gender equality.
Everyone wants a more diverse workforce and equity of opportunity, but there are some very specific reasons for requiring more women to join the sector.
At the most basic level, it is a simple matter of understanding and respecting your customer base. At least 50 per cent of global consumers are women, so when new products are being developed it is essential that women are involved from the design stage right through the process.
I’ve seen some software teams that really have no clue about how women will interact with their systems, and it is easy to see how AI can go on to perpetrate unintentional bias if the data on which they act is incomplete or worse still incorporates stereotypes.
We also need more women starting businesses. That is true not just of tech but across the board. One of the issues is that women tend to be more risk averse, but we need to consider how to harness that. More encouragement would also be welcome. Women are often early adopters of products, whether they be new foods or new tech, so there is an opportunity to actively engage with women and support them as entrepreneurs.
Education is a key challenge. For years women have been underrepresented in STEM university courses and occupations. It is estimated that only about 19 per cent of computer science students are female, and it is the same picture for engineering and technology. Female students make up more than a third (37 per cent) of mathematical sciences students, which is a relative improvement but still not good enough. Apple itself only has about 35 per cent women in its workforce.
CodeClan, Scotland’s industry-led and only SQA-accredited digital skills academy, has made good progress in recruiting and training women but the split is still about 60/40 in favour of male students.
One problem is that girls and young women, particularly around the late primary school and early high school stage, are receiving the wrong messages as part of careers advice. This isn’t always via the school – it can also be from parents who view other occupations as more appealing, for example financial services and law – so we need to redouble our efforts to promote computing science and technology as attractive, well paid career options.
And, despite the best efforts of the Scottish Government, we don’t have enough computing teachers. Graduates can earn three or four times more by going straight into software development and engineering, so it is not difficult to see why teaching is being left behind. But it is vital that we boost numbers and make computing as accessible as possible if we are to address the gender gap.
Extra-curricular opportunities must also be supported. The Digital Xtra Fund is a brilliant scheme that provides grants to organisations delivering digital and tech activities to young people across Scotland, such as dressCode, a charity which delivers lunchtime clubs for girls aged 11-23, focused on games design, web development and cyber security. SmartSTEMs is another excellent third sector organisation inspiring young people aged 10-14, especially girls, by hosting and organising events in schools. Making computing fun and exciting is important if we are to successfully engage with girls and other underrepresented groups – so let’s see this continue and expand further, as part of the plans.
Sadly, we still don’t have enough senior women in tech in Scotland but having positive role models in place is definitely helping to drive change. And we need to ensure women are at the forefront in all areas of tech from usability to software engineering, sales to project management – not just the areas which have traditionally been dominated by females such as HR. On a positive note, there is early evidence that more women are coming through in data science, but greater representation must be across the board. If that means embracing an element of positive discrimination, so be it.
Change isn’t going to happen overnight. There are many positive initiatives underway in Scotland, but societal shifts take much longer than we think and need a great deal of reinforcement. The next 10 years are crucial and what we do now will determine our future success as an inclusive digital economy that recognises and creates opportunities for all.
Polly Purvis OBE is the past Chair of CodeClan, a director of the Edinburgh Science Festival, deputy chair at Converge Challenge, trustee and chair of the Digital Xtra Fund and a member of Johnston Carmichael’s Tech Advisory Board.