“Closing the gender gap in tech and championing digital skills”
Edited version of a speech given, by Margot James, to the Westminster eforum Conference on Women in the Tech Sector
Tuesday, 15th December 2020
Sadly, there is a broad, systemic issue in the Tech sector.
Nowhere near enough women are attracted to Tech, study Tech, work in Tech or reach the top in Tech.
The figures are stark.
At GCSE, 21.5% of Computing students are girls. Just 14.5% of those taking A-Level Computing are female.
Only 18% of undergraduate Computer Science students are women.
17% of British tech workers are women, and just 13% of IT directors.
Nor are there huge signs of change – the proportion of women working in ICT is up just one per cent in the last decade.
When the scale of the problem is so great, change feels difficult. But we know it can happen. In politics, just 60 MPs were women in 1992. Today, there are 220.
We all know that the Tech sector has cultural issues around work-life balance, stereotyping, harassment and all the other evils of discrimination. But so does politics!
What do we need to do in Tech to fix the problem?
First, unblock the pipeline. One reason women are under-represented in Tech is that Computing is seen as optional.
Why isn't Computing a core part of the e-bacc? Why is there no Computer Science element of GCSE combined science?
Change that, and you'd have a massive impact in the gender diversity of Computing education.
We need to promote Computing as a career option. 16% of female students have had a career in Tech suggested to them. That has to change.
Schools and universities must go out of their way to recruit, promote and support women.
At WMG, University of Warwick, we emphasise recruiting women to our Cyber-Security Degree course, and work with employers to ensure women apply for our digital degree apprenticeships.
Programmes like Athena Swan have helped identify the steps we need to take, whether supporting staff returning from a career break, developing a flexible working policy, or offering mentoring and promotion application training to female staff.
Similarly, as a minister, I was a major advocate of the Tech Talent Charter. This focuses on straightforward measures businesses can make to recruit women – like measuring application rates, or ensuring you have more than one woman on job shortlists.
Next, we have to support women who are making a difference.
Whether calling out bad behaviour in companies, showing how algorithms can discriminate against women and minorities, or demanding change in workplace culture and 'crunch' - women in Tech need our support.
My experience is that only sustained pressure leads to change.
As a minister, I led the Government agenda on online harms – an issue that disproportionately affects women. There was a lot of nervousness about holding the big Tech companies responsible for online. Despite this, we managed to get the policy changed; and we published a white paper in April 2019.
Progress has been very slow since then, and in my experience if you take your foot off the pedal, you stop moving forward.
But although too slowly, things are changing for the better.
Globally, last year the Tech sector saw the steepest increase of all industries in the share of women on boards.
Among smaller Tech companies, over 40% of employees in technical roles are women. These firms will be drivers of change as they expand.
There's a strong business case for change. MSCI's Gender Diversity Data report showed that employee productivity was higher in companies that had three or more women on the board of directors.
If we widen the pipeline of women in Tech, attract and recruit women to study and work in Tech, and support women in Tech when they raise issues like workplace culture and gender pay gaps, then the future is bright.