By Liam Butler, AVP at SumTotal
National Coding Week is an awareness initiative that is led by volunteers, aimed at building people’s confidence with digital skills – namely coding. The UK is currently in the middle of a growing digital skills crisis. According to a recent survey by the British Chamber of Commerce, when hiring, two-thirds of businesses believe tech knowledge is key – and yet alarmingly, a quarter of these firms report digital skills shortages.
With Brexit threatening to stifle the flow of labour between Britain and the wider continent, and the effects of an ageing population becoming more pronounced over the next decade, the UK could be facing a job deficit of almost 3 million by 2030.
Industry needs to tackle this issue head-on. A fundamental starting point is to encourage more people to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) areas. This applies to students, as well as those individuals already in the workforce. It will require both training, and re-skilling, but it will be key to closing the digital skills divide. Left unchecked, by 2030 the global talent shortage could amount to more than $8.5 trillion in unrealised annual revenues.
Supporting women in STEM
One solution may be quite simple: get more women into STEM. Currently, women make up just 23% of STEM occupations in the UK, and therefore closing the diversity gap in these fields will naturally help to close the wider digital skills gap. Women are an untapped resource of digital talent.
The reasons for such a stark diversity divide are complex. We’ve come a long way towards increased awareness for gender equality in the workplace in recent years, but today women are still paid less than men, represented in fewer board positions, and hold fewer leadership positions in companies.
A recent report by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) and the High Pay Centre revealed that just seven of the FTSE 100 companies’ CEOs are women. FTSE 100 chief executive officers are as likely to be named Dave, as they are to be female. At the current rate of one new female CEO each year it will take another 43 years for women to make up 50% of the FTSE 100 CEOs. The report also reveals that while women make up 7% of FTSE 100 CEOs, they earn just 3.5% of total pay.
Fortunately, this disparity is gaining attention, and companies are beginning to take action to rectify the situation. But despite progression in gender equality, women are still grossly underrepresented in STEM. Those women who do enter STEM careers are more likely to leave for other industries than their male colleagues, with more than half leaving by the 10-year mark. The challenge, therefore, is two-fold: get more women into STEM, and keep them there.
Encouraging coding in schools
From a practical standpoint, encouraging girls to get into STEM ultimately starts with education. In school, coding should be mandatory for everyone; complex problem solving and critical thinking should be part of everyday life. This will go a long way to defusing the myth that STEM is for boys. Coding is great because it develops different parts of the brain, so even if children don’t go on to study STEM subjects, coding will still be useful from a skills perspective – particularly as the workplace becomes more reliant on technology.
One of the biggest blocks to making this change will be teachers. Some teachers are unconsciously biased about girls and STEM. As children, boys are told they’re smart whilst girls are told they’re beautiful – right from an early age unconscious bias is instilled and this still happens in primary schools today. This translates beyond childhood and into exam years and the world of work. The cycle perpetuates the age-old view: that women are better suited to social and artistic careers and would struggle making tough leadership decisions or solving complex math problems.
Awareness drives such as National Coding Week are crucial. Many teachers will also not have the skills to teach coding themselves and it’s important that individuals with the skills have the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to those who need it most. Businesses have a crucial role to play too – communicating which digital skills they will need from the future workforce and providing training and resources to schools to support better education in these areas. Skillsoft, for example, works with various charities across the world, donating digital skills learning content to their members and leadership teams – including Code like a Girl and Tech Sassy Girls – to help them gain the skills they need and pass on this knowledge to others.
This is a change that must happen; teachers, businesses and individuals all need to adapt. If nothing changes, we’ll continue to see both a gender and a skills imbalance in the workforce.
Ultimately, to be something, you need to see something. This issue is reflective of the lack of female role models in technology and STEM as a whole. Male leaders dominate the field; we need more of them sponsoring women’s career development and advocating for their advancement if women are to have long and rewarding careers in STEM. Diverse teams are shown time and again to be more creative, innovative and effective. It’s time to make diverse teams the norm, rather than the exception – and National Coding Week is a great starting place for this change.