Bridging the Gender Divide Can Help Close the UK Skills Gap
This blog was kindly written for us by Jacqueline de Rojas – Area Vice President of Citrix.
Lamentation over Britain’s skills gap rarely escapes the media. But where Britain continues to fall short in this debate is on how women could be a significant factor in its solution.
Women represent a largely untapped source for Britain’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills market. According to the Office for National Statistics, despite representing 46 per cent of the labour market, women still only make up 12.8 per cent of the STEM workforce (excluding health-related occupations). And despite frequent discussion by industry bodies around women’s underrepresentation, it is not yet converting into a greater uptake by women of careers in these sectors.
Britain cannot hope to resolve its skills gap if we continue to expect and accept that only half the population makes up the significant majority in these professions. A strategic plan is needed, with input from both government and businesses, to encourage more women to enter into STEM careers, and support and stimulate Britain’s industry and economy.
Benefits to the business
Diversity and gender balance within a business is important. Research by Gallup found that a gender-diverse workforce can improve a company’s bottom line, not to mention provide more diverse ideas and insight. A recent McKinsey whitepaper studying gender equality in French multinational firm Sodexo analysed data from 50,000 managers across 90 entities around the world, and found clear evidence that teams with a male–female ratio between 40 and 60 per cent produce results that are more sustained and predictable than those of unbalanced teams.
Bridging the divide
If Britain hopes to bridge its STEM skills gap, politicians and industry bodies must consider a long term plan, combined with some shorter-term measures. The government’s initiative to introduce coding into the national curriculum is a good example of innovating what students are learning to inspire them and equip them with practical skills.
Adjusting the national curriculum is a start, but research has repeatedly shown that girls tend to lack confidence in their capacity for technology and science subjects, even as young as age 10 or 11. Schools must ensure that they do their best to dispel myths that these are “boys’ subjects”, instead highlighting girls’ achievements and promoting tangible benefits such as higher average wages in STEM careers. Equally, as the technology landscape evolves so quickly, there is a need to regularly expose teachers to opportunities to maintain and enhance their technology skillset – perhaps through industry secondments or by encouraging businesses to offer six month working sabbaticals in a schoolroom environment.
A collaborative effort
By changing the language that we use to promote the technology industry from three letter acronyms to business impact and outcomes, we can make this sector much less of a closed club. We are all guilty of blinding the market with features, version numbers and techno-speak, which serves to lock non-technical people out.
Exploring internship programmes is a crucial means for opening up opportunities for young people to pursue highly successful careers in the technology sector – but importantly, we may want to think about changing the way we currently advertise these opportunities as “apprenticeships” – which are so often perceived as male-orientated. Real enterprise experience will be key to encouraging more women to choose careers in the STEM industries, combined with better industry role models to inspire the next generation.
There is also a need for businesses to demonstrate an environment which is beneficial to and provides adequate opportunities for working parents. Flexible working options are a key driver for many that are keen to succeed in the workplace without the constraints of a nine-to-five mentality. The technology industry could highlight how innovation extends beyond its products, by promoting the use of technology and championing a cultural shift to enable a more flexible, productive workforce. These opportunities can in turn breakdown barriers for working parents and returning mums.
Tackling the gender divide in technology is too often seen as a feminist agenda rather than a business agenda. But without tackling the culture that reinforces the skills gap for 50 per cent of the population, the UK can never be a leading source of technology innovation. Only by investing in our future female workforce are businesses guaranteed the necessary manpower, skills and diversity of ideas for future success.
We have an opportunity to plug the skills gap. But the government and businesses must commit to devising and investing in a long term plan to increase women’s representation in these industries, rather than just announcing large one-off investments to score political or PR points. Britain already has the credentials and the potential to become a global leader in technology. Bridging the gender gap is the key to our industry’s future success – and in the process avoiding a potentially devastating digital desert.
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