Bridging the gender divide to fill the digital skills gap

In 2015, just 27% of those employed in the UK’s digital industries were women, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). This is well below the UK average of 47% for female employees.

The key to ensuring the skills gap continues to decrease – so that graduates in 10 years’ time are at an advantage when it comes to finding paid employment whatever their gender – is introducing basic concepts around web coding, illustration and design as early on in the curriculum as possible.

Currently, only half as many girls are given coding education at school compared to their male counterparts. Also, according to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), only 17% of computer science degrees.

Yet, researchers found computer code written by women had a higher approval rating than that produced by men when 1.4million users of program-sharing service Github accepted more pull requests – or suggested code changes – submitted by female contributors than male ones earlier this year.

The team found that 78.6% of pull requests made by women were accepted compared with 74.6% of those by men. Despite this, tech firms continue to face challenges in terms of the diversity of their staff, with just 16% of Facebook’s tech staff being women, according to figures released in 2015.

As an organisation created specifically to support young people in gaining the knowledge they need to access employment within the digital industries here in Wales, such reports come as little surprise to Codez Academy and others working to close the enormous shortfall in digital skills across the country. Education is key to tackling these issues, particularly targeting children at a young age.

Bootcamp courses run here at Codez Academy within the school holidays are consistently well subscribed to and have demonstrated a healthy appetite for associated learning among young people, but there is much more still to be done in empowering the next generation to truly believe in the importance of digital skills moving forward – particularly among girls.

And while the practice of gender comparison may be seen as counterproductive in some instances, studies like those conducted around Github could well be helpful in ensuring we get off on the right foot when it comes to attracting future talent to the newly emerging digital sector.

With traditional industries like engineering and construction still falling foul of perceptions around male dominance and a lack of interest from female candidates, who are likely concerned about their ability to fulfil and thrive in relevant roles, we need to do all we can to ensure that the digital sector does not fall into the same trap.

Figures released as part of the same Github study also showed the acceptance rates for pull requests submitted by women dropped by almost 10% from using gender neutral profiles on the platform, to when their gender became identifiable.

In 2015 San Francisco software developer Isis Wenger even started a social media campaign with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer when her looks led people to question her choice of career, which subsequently attracted support from the likes of Bill Gates’ wife Melinda, among others.

This cannot and should not be acceptable as an industry standard, particularly within one as young and fresh as digital. We need to empower our young people to prioritise digital skills now, so that school leavers and university graduates in years to come feel empowered to pursue their chosen career whatever their gender.

By Dean Jenkins, founder of Codez Academy.