The talent war continues to loom in the tech world and companies will have to recognise diversity to fill their positions. Given the importance of tech in our everyday lives and to the global economy, it’s concerning for all of us that the tech talent pool might soon dry up. There are reportedly 100,000 job openings per month in tech, which means the industry has the second highest number of vacancies in the UK after healthcare (1).
But even with a yawning digital skills gap and an urgent need for greater diversity and inclusion in the tech sector, it would be short-sighted to focus most of our attention on just senior-level roles. Of course this approach makes a difference, and it’s a valuable one, but it doesn’t solve the more stubborn long-term problem of ensuring women can get to that position in the first place. What we need to do far more often than we do currently is focus on the next generation. We need to think less of the existing talent pool and more of the pipeline, and that means understanding the journey of women working in tech from the beginning.
The talent shortage in tech really begins in childhood. Harmful but pervasive assumptions about interest, suitability, temperament and tired stereotypes about ‘girls’ brains’ still exist and inform the expectations of teachers, parents and peers.
These biases continue throughout adolescence and into higher education, too often narrowing the opportunities girls and young women perceive themselves to have. In 2020, the number of girls choosing to study computer science at GCSE level made up just 21% of total entrants. This fell further for A-Level entrants, with young women accounting for just 17% of entrants in IT subjects (2).
And it isn’t just about entrance into the tech world. Retention remains a problem, with 50% of women leaving their technology careers by the age of 35 (compared to 20% in other jobs). Women are leaving the sector at a 45% higher rate than men, depriving businesses, the industry and the economy of exactly what they need (3). New mothers working in tech still also pay an enormous penalty for having children, as in so many other sectors. And these conditions highlight the need for a dramatic shift in the way that we approach diversity and inclusion in the tech sector.
It’s great that businesses are thinking seriously and investing heavily in D&I, and that has to continue to happen. But what we’re sometimes lacking, or think of as in some way less relevant, is a real understanding of the cultural forces at work, and how these change the course of young people’s lives away from the area of the business world that’s crying out for them.
The global pandemic has also had a huge negative effect on women’s employment, with a recent McKinsey report showing that women make up 54% of overall job losses (4). This is despite the fact they make up only 39% of the global workforce. Women have been more vulnerable to the economic effects of Covid-19 because of the existing inequalities they face and this is set to push any progression within the tech sector back even further.
With any complex problem, it’s helpful to break things down into small parts (as many in the tech sector know well). But it’s only by stepping back and taking a hard look at the context that we can identify not only where the drop-offs are but how they were caused. What is it like to be the only girl in your class at university? How many women are completing STEM subjects but don’t want to move into STEM fields? These are the kinds of questions we need to answer.
According to PwC, just 3% of women say a career in tech is their first choice, 78% of students can’t name a famous woman working in tech, and just 5% of leadership positions in the tech sector are held by women (5). If we focus on the generations to come and the journey girls and young women will take, we can start to reverse a trend that has existed for far too long.