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Leeds’ Tech Industry is Thriving But it’s Time to Close the Gender Gap

· Ali Turner · Discussion

The idea that the tech industry is a man's game is as outdated as a fax machine.

Women in Tech Sky

Sky's Get into Tech initiative aims to provide a unique and supportive environment in which women with little or no previous technical experience can learn some of the skills necessary to begin a career in software development.Apply now.

Over the last ten years, we’ve watched the city’s digital sector go from strength to strength, but not everyone’s benefitting, because women make up just 18% of the workforce.

It’s crazy when you think about it. Tech is the future. It’s where the money is and it’s where the jobs are, but for some unfathomable reason, women just aren’t biting. It’s certainly not that we can’t do it, those of us who choose to go into digital rock at it, but not enough of us seem to want to – and therein lies the problem.

On paper, the tech industry is a no brainer – so why aren’t there more women?

According to Tech Nation 2017, there are 1.64 million digital tech jobs in the UK, with an average salary of £50,663. Those numbers speak for themselves – this is a lucrative industry with real career prospects, so where are the women? What or who could be keeping them away from this incredible opportunity?

It’s easy to jump to conclusions. Sexism! Controversy! Burn those bras! But the real problem is that women aren’t applying in the first place. We’re falling at the first hurdle. If we want to get more women into the industry, we have to make them want it and that means changing perceptions – because whether we like it or not, the tech industry is still seen as a man’s game.

Geeks, gaming and Star Trek – you’ve got to battle your way through a lot of stereotypes to realise that this is an incredibly rewarding career that’s just as good for creatives and academics as it is for computer-obsessed brain-boxes. And there are initiatives in place to help do this, like WISE, which works with businesses to encourage more young girls to study STEM subjects – but they still have a lot of work to do. Something that’s all too clear from the fact that out of the 7,600 students who completed an A-Level in computing in 2017, less than 10% of them were girls.

So what does this mean for us gals?

It may not be sexism, but it is a feminist issue. The tech industry is one of the most powerful sectors in the UK today and women are hugely under-represented, especially in leadership positions. That means we’re hampering our own progress by handing over tomorrow’s most promising positions to men – and even if it is by our own volition, it’s going to have growing impact on our influence in the world.

That’s no exaggeration. The digital revolution is moving at such a pace that it’s invading every aspect of our lives, from the way we order our morning coffee (ready to pick up from Starbucks) to the way we get work (self-driving car anyone?) – and it’s even changing the very careers we’ve chosen for ourselves.

In fact, we may soon find that the careers women have chosen over tech have become obsolete, because ‘there’s an app for that’. Take auditing for example. With new digital innovations, this could soon be automated, it could be done through AI. Those high paying jobs might not even exist in the future – and because women have chosen to go into those careers, instead of tech, they could be disproportionality affected.

Right now, there are more jobs than digital professionals

Here’s the thing. The tech sector is growing and it’s growing fast, but the talent pool isn’t keeping pace. Europe is set to face a shortage of up to 825,000 skilled tech professionals by 2020. In less than three years, the industry will be under such pressure that our potential for growth and our competitive edge will be at threat.

Here in the UK, the situation has been made worse by Brexit. 13% of jobs in the digital tech sector are currently filled by international workers, but that number could soon fall significantly. Career website Hired recently revealed that the pool of overseas candidates who had accepted initial offers from UK firms had dropped by half in the first quarter of 2017. If that trend continues, the problem could escalate even faster than predicted.

You could look at this as a disaster, or you could at it as an opportunity – over 50% of the UK’s population is women, but only 18% of the tech workforce is. If we can even those odds, bringing more women into the industry, we can kill two birds with one stone – reducing the skills shortage and the gender gap in one fell swoop.

It’s not just about filling vacancies, it’s about improving products

Oh don’t get your knickers in a twist. We’re not saying women are better coders than men, although they are pretty good. This is about diversity. Different people see the world in different ways and they approach things differently too – when it comes to technology that’s an incredible asset. Only when we look at a problem from every direction, can we find the best solution.

“If we don’t have a diverse set of people designing our products, we run the risk that our products won’t be appropriate for the whole population. Half of our audience is female, so if we don’t have them represented in everything that we’re doing we might end up missing something,” Renee Hunt, Director of Digital Platforms at Sky told us.

That diversity is at the very heart of Sky’s business model – and we’re not just talking about women, although they’re certainly leading the charge in that regard. It’s just as important for ethnic minorities to be represented, for all the same reasons. And Renee has the perfect example of why it’s so important, “I’m a black woman, and I can tell you that it drives me crazy that the sensors in hand dryers don’t recognise brown skin. It’s only when I flip over my hands that they turn on, and I’d bet it’s because of a lack of diversity in the teams that design them.”

So you see, narrowing the gender gap and bringing more ethnic minorities into the tech sector, isn’t just an equality project – it’ll have a positive impact on the quality of the products they produce and that will benefit all of us.

How do we redress the balance?

It starts early, really early – because we’ve got to get those A-Level numbers up. “I think it starts when you’re young – in schools, in the home, with the types of toys you play with,” Renee explained. “There’s a link between gaming and the people who come into technology, and those gamers are young men. Those environments aren’t particularly female-friendly and the games aren’t particularly female-friendly.”

It’s true, the gaming industry has a lot to answer for. The eighties did a bit of a number on women and tech. Somehow, this image emerged of computers being a boy toy and it stuck – we’re still working to undo that, just like we’re working to undo the idea that coding is man’s job. More and more coding clubs are popping up outside of school, just for girls, and there are even badges you can get at Girl Scouts for it.

It’s important that businesses get involved too, because you’ll never really understand it until you see it for yourself – which is why Sky invite students into their Leeds Dock offices to see them at work. “We do outreach with schools, so we bring girls into the office to show them what it’s like to work in tech,” Renee told us. “We have a team that builds apps for children, so as they walked around, they saw SpongeBob and Pepper Pig – they were so excited because they didn’t know that we did all this really cool stuff. At the beginning, we asked them if they’d like to work in software, and maybe two of them raised their hands, but at the end, loads of them did.”

Want to get into tech?

Just because you didn’t study computing in school doesn’t mean you’ve missed the boat. It’s never too late. Whether you’re fresh out of uni, looking for a career change or a young mum who wants to get back into the workplace, you could have a promising career in the digital sector, thanks to Sky’s Get into Tech initiative.

It’s a new programme that offers free training to women who want to start a career in software development. There are limited places, but if you get one, you’ll learn how to code, so you can build apps, websites, streaming services and even complex commands that protect systems from cyber attacks. And you don’t need to be a techy – you might be good at solving problems, really creative or a mathematic genius, they’re all great traits for a programmer.

“The programme is free, it runs in the evenings, and it’s 14 weeks long,” Renee told us. “It’s basically designed to give someone who has no background in technology an opportunity to learn how to code. The goal is that at the end of the course you should be able to apply for an entry-level coding role anywhere.”

Their next Get into Tech course starts in the new year, and applications are still open, but you’ll have to be quick – get yours in by Friday 17th November 2017 for a chance to learn how to code, with no strings attached.