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Bad news for tech skills shortages and the gender gap, as women continue to avoid computing college courses

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett July 31, 2023
Summary:
Despite a ten percent rise in 18-year olds opting for computing degrees, increase in female students is just one percent.

Female hand points at technology concept image showing skills increasing on a dial © putilich via Canva.com

Some good news for the tech sector this month around skills and recruitment. According to the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), applications for computing degrees from 18-year olds are up ten percent this year compared to 2022, rising from 86,630 to 94,870 applications. Compared to 2021, that’s a 33% increase up from 71,150 applications. 

More school-leavers are choosing computing-related courses thanks to rising interest in software engineering (up 45% compared to 2021), computer games and animation (28%) and Artificial Intelligence (16%).

Some good news also for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. There has been an increase in the number of applications by UK students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds: 11,870 this year, up seven percent compared to last year and 43% higher than 2021.

However, the outlook in another DEI area – women in tech - is less rosy. Computing remains a male-dominated field across UK universities, with just 18% of applications made by females. Unlike the huge jump seen among disadvantaged students from 2021, progress among 18-year-old women has been much slower, up by just one percent from 17% in 2022 and 16% in 2021.

The situation for women computing students is slightly better in other countries, but not by much. In the US, women account for 21% of computer science degrees; this is the same proportion as across the EU

Ongoing issues

The overall increase in the number of 18-year olds opting for computing degrees is a positive one for the tech industry, as in a few years’ time there will be more people with relevant skills joining the workforce. 

However, this brings into sharp relief the ongoing issues around attracting younger women to the tech sector. Even when there is a leap in interest thanks to areas like gaming and AI, it’s mostly men who are grabbing onto these opportunities to join a thriving industry with solid job prospects. 

While there has been much discussion about getting girls interested in computing, and many valuable programmes have been launched over the past few years, the numbers show that we need to go much further, according to Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA at Skillsoft. She says:

There are still some old-fashioned views that remain ingrained in the public consciousness, and they can do a lot of damage. Over a quarter of female students still say they’ve been put off a career in technology as it’s too male-dominated. Until that perception is challenged, we’re unlikely to see a huge increase in the number of women studying computing.

There are some reasons for optimism, for example growth in the number of girls taking Computing at A-Levels over the past few years, Nowakowska adds:

But governments and schools need to be doing far more to increase this number. For example, offering younger female students opportunities to learn to code or build websites can build on that interest earlier. All too often, these biases seep in early and continue to impact women throughout their lives.

Inspiring women at a young age is a necessary tactic, and one that should be taken on within schools, agrees Rhonda Doyle, Senior Director, Field Services Operations UK&I at Schneider Electric. She notes:

We've a lady who's joined us in Ireland and she talks about how her dad inspired her into Formula One, and that got her into engineering and technology. If you don't have that inspiration at home, we need to be doing that in the schools.

I still remember in Ireland with the Leaving Certificate. You were in your final two years and they were telling us computers matter, computers is where the future is. That meant nothing to me at that point. I thought, that's probably maths. That's a big myth we need to get rid of.

The approach to teaching computing is starting to shift, which could help inspire more young girls. Doyle cited a presenter at the recent Women in STEM Summit in Ireland, who shared how she’s teaching science and technology to younger children in a non-technical way, for example monitoring traffic patterns in an area around a school, and what that was trying to solve. 

However, the myth that computers equals complicated maths is still too prevalent, Doyle notes. As this isn’t something that can be quickly rectified, more needs to be done to demystify STEM roles, with discussion in education about the different types of technology roles available. Doyle adds:

There are the ones where you're leading computer programming or engineering teams. But then what if you want to be in a technology company like Schneider, but you want to be their marketing expert and you bring something to the table in that way. You still understand the technology the company is driving and the value proposition it gives back to the customer.

Formal matters

In this digital era, with plenty of routes into tech roles other than a degree, does it still matter whether women are failing to engage with formal computing education? Yes it does, says Doyle:

It still matters because otherwise we won't fill the funnel up. There are various careers in technology or engineering that if you want to go really deep in, the earlier that you started building those skill blocks, it really matters. Finding the organic talent isn’t enough. We've got to be able to still fill that funnel up because we're missing out on some of that talent. 

When you meet some of our really bright females not just in Schneider, but at some of the events I go to, and you're blown away with some of the business ideas they've come up with, you're like, what if they didn't get some of that exposure?”

Initiatives to help people get into tech through other routes, like apprenticeships at tech companies, IT certifications from companies like Google and IBM, and UK Government schemes like the Upskill in Cyber training program, can be very effective, according to Nowakowska. However, as there is currently still a huge emphasis on relevant degrees, employers should be doing more to encourage women down that route. Nowakowska adds:

The good news is that it’s not an either/or scenario. Organizations can work with schools and universities to encourage more women to study computing and invest in hiring women skilled through alternative routes.

Companies need more encouragement to seek out diverse talent, rather than fixate on whether candidates have the right degree or formal tech training, according to Doyle, something she has been involved with at her own organization. She says:

We've had to talk to our hiring leaders at Schneider and say, you've got 10 criteria, are there things you can flex on in order to get somebody who's going to bring something different into the business that we may not have.

Regarding the similarly low numbers of women choosing to study computing across the UK, EU and US, Nowakowska says this isn’t hugely surprising. After all, the issues outlined above are mirrored in those three regions. She adds:

It is a little disappointing to see the UK a few points behind the US and the EU, and we should let this spur us on to further action. It would be great to see that gap close next year.

Nowakowska is hopeful that the number of women opting for computing courses will carry on rising, but says this will require continued work from the business world, as well as the education system. This could include companies offering computing clubs for young girls or visiting schools and career fairs to highlight the available opportunities. She adds:

Well-publicised graduate schemes can be an excellent way of encouraging young people to study a certain degree, and I would encourage organisations to review the materials they use to promote these and ensure women are featured. Promoting female role models within the technology sector can be hugely important for making it seem like an attractive prospect for young girls.

My take

The surge in interest in computing studies among 18-year olds is a positive for the tech industry. As areas like AI and gaming encourage more young people to opt for a path into a career in tech, this means more candidates with the right skills to fill future vacancies. 

However, it’s disappointing that with a ten percent rise in applications for computing degrees, the increase has mostly been precipitated by men. 

The gradual rise in women applicants shows efforts to attract young girls are starting to take effect – but schools, governments and companies need to band together to develop an approach that has quick and maximum impact, to ensure that the tech sector doesn’t become even more male-dominated than it is currently. 

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