GCSE results highlight growing gender gap in technology subjects

SUMMARY:

This is amid an overall decrease in number of tech exams taken and against a backdrop of the UK needing to plug a STEM skills shortage.

GCSE results were out today, putting half a million children – and parents – across the UK out of their misery about whether they’ve got the expected or necessary grades. This year’s crop of results has seen a slight dip of 0.6% in the overall pass rate, after the introduction of tougher exams in England.

This year’s pupils are also the first to switch to a new 1-9 grading system, where 9 is the top mark and 1 the lowest. So far, only Maths and English exams are being graded in this way, with other subjects still graded in the old A*-G.

The results are a useful indication of the interest levels among young people in computing subjects, a vital measure in ensuring the UK can meet the growing demand for skilled technology workers in our digital economy. And the news here is mixed: 66,751 students sat a Computing GCSE this year compared to 62,454 last year; however, the number of students sitting an ICT exam dropped from 84,120 to 73,099.

It’s encouraging to see more students opting for the harder Computing subject – which includes programming and hardware compared to ICT’s application of technology – but it’s disappointing that the huge decrease in ICT exams did not lead to a bigger jump in Computing GCSEs.

Today’s GCSE results are also bad news for those looking for evidence that technology is becoming more appealing to young women. Computing and ICT GCSEs account for only 1.5% of the total number of exams taken by female students, compared to 3.7% of males. This represents a bigger gap compared to last year’s respective figures of 1.8% female and 3.8% male.

What is of particular note here is that young girls perform better in technology subjects than their male counterparts, yet are still less attracted to the subject. In Computing, 19.6% of males scored the top A/7 ranking, compared to 25.4% of females – both these scores are a few percentage points above the overall average for all subjects; in ICT, the respective figures are 16.7% male and 25.4% female. For the boys, this was roughly the same as the average for all subjects, while girls scored two percentage points higher.

Despite the gender gap in students opting for a technology subject, Gavin Mee, senior vice president, Enterprise Sales and head of UK at Salesforce, said the fact that young women are outperforming their male counterparts in technology exams is encouraging.

Though fewer young women are taking computing GCSEs, it is encouraging to see how these young women have outperformed young men. With the tech industry growing twice as fast as the UK economy this is particularly promising to see.

We as businesses need to continue to encourage more women to consider a career in tech, as it continues to play a bigger role across all industries. This includes an increased collaboration between schools, employers and the government to steer more young people, and in particular women, into the digital jobs that will be key to powering UK economic growth.

Worsening problem

However, there is clearly more work to be done to encourage young women to consider technology subjects and careers, as last week’s A-Level results highlighted.

As at GCSE level, fewer students are opting for the ICT A-Level, often seen as the easier subject and not one that helps when pursuing a Computer Science degree. Only 7,607 students sat an ICT exam this year, compared to 8,737 last year. However, this drop is balanced out by a bigger increase in the number of Computing A-Levels taken, which rose from 6,242 last year to 8,299 this summer.

So good news that overall more students are choosing a technology A-Level, but the gender gap among 18-year olds is even worse than at the 16-year-old stage. ICT courses have a similar gender balance as at GCSE level, with male students outnumbering females by around 2:1. However, those young women deciding to take a Computing A-Level will have found themselves outnumbered by almost 10:1

Interestingly, it is only in this exam of all the technology GCSEs and A-Levels that males outperform the females, with 17.2% getting an A* or A grade, compared to 14.7% of women; in the ICT exam, these numbers are 7.9% and 14.2% respectively.

Melissa Di Donato, chief revenue officer at SAP S/4 HANA Cloud, says it is disheartening that so few girls are opting for technology subjects at A-Level. She notes:

As a woman with a leadership role in the tech industry, I find this a sorry state of affairs. Now more than ever digital innovations like cloud technology are transforming the world around us so if young women want to make a difference, they need to be doing so in the tech sector.

This needs to start at a young age. Evidence suggests we have to reach young girls before they are around seven years of age when gender stereotypes begin to set in. If we don’t succeed in this, women will continue missing out on some of the most exciting jobs with the biggest impact on how we live, work and play.

A shortfall

And more importantly, the UK will suffer as the number of vacancies in the technology sector continues to outpace the amount of skilled workers available. The STEM worker shortfall is estimated to be around 40,000 each year in the UK, and as more jobs are being created to meet the shifting demands of the digital economy, the need grows for a strong pipeline of candidates to fill positions ranging from UX designers and AI developers to self-driving car engineers and drone photographers.

Jacqueline de Rojas, president at techUK said the latest batch of exam results pose questions over how we can thrive as a digital society if we are not teaching the next generation digital skills as a core subject.

The best way to counter this is to get girls engaged at a younger age. So if girls and boys are wondering what to do post-GCSE they should be actively encouraged to select STEM subjects at school or move into a tech-related vocational role.

The UK has one of the worst records in science performance for girls in the world according to the OECD – and European Commission research tells us that the skills gap is larger in the UK than anywhere else in the EU, with the gender imbalance remaining a pervasive issue throughout the education system and within the IT workforce. The best barons who thrive online are those who focus on inclusion and digital adoption from an early age.

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Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner at time of writing.

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