Addressing the issue of gender diversity in the IT and telecoms industry.

Yesterday, I attended a very interesting presentation by Professor Margaret Ross, Emeritus Professor of Software Quality at Southampton Solent University and an active member of the British Computer Society (BSC) (pictured right).  

Professor Ross is a Committee member of the BSCWomen Specialist Group and she addressed the issue of gender diversity in the IT and telecoms industry, where women make up less than 20% of the IT workforce.

The presentation reminded me of an article I penned way back in 2008 on this very subject. It outlined how the number of women studying and working in technology was steadily declining - citing well documented reasons such as gender stereotyping, the way technology was taught in schools, short comings in careers advice, a lack of high profile female role models and challenges with workplace cultures.

At that time, social media was still in its infancy - we were just starting to poke each other on Facebook and a tweet was still just a noise made by birds. However, I was optimistic that the growing trend towards social networking would help encourage more girls to consider a career in IT, as they got used to interacting with technology as part of their daily lives and, consequently, might consider IT to be a more appealing career choice.

So seven years down the line, have things changed? Well, no and yes.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that In 2004, women made up 19% of all undergraduate Computer Science students, by 2009 that figure had dipped to 16% and, depressingly, in 2014 females accounted for only 15% of those applying for Computer Science Degrees.

According to the recent "Women in Technology Project Research Report 2015" published by Tech Women UK - whilst women's representation in the workforce has increased to 46%, women only make up 15% of ICT professionals. Research from E-Skills (Women in IT Scorecard) shows that the UK is lower than the EU norm when it comes to female representation in IT positions. A recent online recruiter's poll showed that women make up just one in twenty applicants for IT jobs in the UK.

These worryingly low numbers are reflected in the makeup of individual tech companies around the UK and beyond. Let's take a look at some of the big names in the world of technology - women comprise 29.1% of Microsoft's workforce, but only 17% work in technical positions and just 23% of women hold leadership roles. Women fill 10% of Twitter's technical jobs and whilst 30% of Google's entire workforce is female, only 18% of women work in its technology divisions.

These statistics quite clearly demonstrate that the challenge of gender diversity and equality in the technology industry has not yet been successfully addressed. Given the complex range of factors - many of them cultural and sociological - which discourage girls from even considering a career in IT, there was never going to be a quick fix.

However, in the last few years there has been a renewed impetus by industry bodies (including the BCS and TechUK), charities, the private sector and government to actively address this issue and engage more girls and women in STEM subjects (STEM subjects are Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), with a particular emphasis on technology. They are championing a range of strategies, programmes and projects to encourage women to work in technology - whether coding, business analysis, project management or in another of the many varied roles.

This drive ranges from regional events - with a core in the Tech City area of London - such as coding clubs including Code for Life (aimed at schools), Code First: Girls (targeted at university students), events, mentoring programmes and incubator organsiations. In Glasgow earlier this month ScotlandIS held its first Smart STEM event where over 500 girls from ages 11 to 10, were encouraged to take STEM subjects at school and further education. They got the opportunity to take part in workshops such as Design your own twitter word cloud' and "I need an App", all hosted by inspiring female leaders.

On a national level, the BCS are championing a range of initiatives from influencing the school curriculum with a new computer syllabus to providing a range of networking and career management events for women around the country. They are also promoting role models - featuring women who work in technology through posters in schools and on Wikipedia.

In the private sector, larger companies such as Accenture, CapGemini and Cisco (to name just a few), all have a range of initiatives to encourage and support women in technology. These include mentoring programmes, support networks and sponsorship - for example, Network Rail offers university sponsorship to girls between the age of 16 and 18. Last year Google launched a $50 million "Made with Code" initiative to teach young girls how to code.

So why the upsurge in activity to attract women into tech now? Because it matters to the economic growth of our country, now more than ever - we need more people to work in technology full stop. There is a shortage of medium and high level digital skills in the UK which urgently needs addressing if the UK is to retain a competitive advantage in a global market. This isn't going to be solved by recruiting from only half of the available resource pool. According to a recent report form the Lords Select Committee, chaired by Baroness Sally Morgan - increasing the number of women in IT could generate an extra £2.6 billion each year for the UK economy.

It's a well-documented fact that more gender balanced workforces generate better results - a more diverse set of employees gives organisations a more diverse set of skills which improves productivity and financial performance. Technology companies with more women in their management teams have a 34% higher return on investment.

In addition to the economic benefits, the technology companies need a diverse workforce to properly understand their customers. It's a dynamic sector which relies on new ideas and perspectives - wouldn't design and product development benefit from input from 52% of their potential client base?

A shortage of skilled IT professionals is a real issue here on the Island too. ICT and eBusiness are rapidly growing sectors of the Isle of Man's economy and the Government's Vision 2020 strategy predicts the creation of 100+ new jobs in the sector every year over the next few years.

MICTA (the Manx ICT Association) are looking at how they can develop a skilled workforce to meet the growing demands of the digital economy, and attracting and retaining more women in the sector is definitely high on their agenda. There are a range of local initiatives, which are aimed at both nurturing an interest in technology and supporting career development in IT for all, whether male or female. These include a weekly Code Club for kids, a Code Bus to provide even more opportunities to learn coding and the appointment of an 'ICT' Champion to support the work of ICT teachers in high schools across the Island. PDMS recently hosted a visit by the Isle of Man's IT Career Ready (previously known as the IT Career Academy) - a scheme to help prepare A level students for a career in IT by providing practical support, business mentors, visits to businesses and paid internships to local students.

I would like to think that in another 7 years' time, this topic would be a non-starter for an article - as the number of girls studying for computer related A levels and degrees increases and the workforce of our technology companies becomes more balanced - having tapped into the large pool of previously underutilised female talent.