We need to start with the setting out the problem. Despite the fairly high profile of this issue, the trend for representation of women in IT over the last decade is actually slightly down, with current figures showing just 20 per cent in the industry as a whole.
Drilling down to specialist areas it gets worse: within the IT sector itself only 11 per cent of IT specialists are women and the median gross weekly rate of pay for female IT specialists was 16 per cent less than the comparison figure for men working in IT roles.
Karen Price OBE, CEO of e-skills UK says in her foreword to the report: ‘No-one who is fortunate enough, as I am, to visit employer premises on a regular basis, will be surprised by the contents of this report - a simple glance around will invariably confirm that men are significantly in the majority in tech workplaces. While the scale of the gender imbalance itself is shocking, its persistence is no less so.’
The importance of the issue
Quite aside from the obvious ethical dilemma, the IT & Telecoms industry accounted for an annual gross value added (GVA) of £75 billion in 2012 according to the ONS Annual Business Survey - approximately 8 per cent of the UK total in that year. Continued adoption of IT has the capacity to generate an additional £47 billion of GVA to the UK economy over the next five to seven years.
Likewise, IT accounts for a significant proportion of UK employment. In 2013 there were just under 1.4 million people working either within the IT industry sector or in IT roles within other parts of the economy (753,000 in the IT industry and 643,000 IT professionals working in other industries) according to e-Skills’ 2012 Technology Insights - and that doesn’t include the 29.7 million employees who use IT in their daily - these are the experts upon whom they depend.
The value of a gender-balanced work force in such a vibrant sector of the economy is considered self-evident by most; especially with the UK facing a challenge to keep up with IT demand. E-skills UK’s recent employment forecasts work, in partnership with Experian, identified that there is a need for around 129,000 new entrants a year into IT & Telecoms specialist job roles through to 2015, with a minimum of around 22,600 likely to be filled by people joining from education.
Where are the problems?
Karen Price cites the societal influences that affect all STEM roles and the widespread misperceptions about IT careers - from the difficulty of the work to IT’s undeserved anti-social image.
But however much employers want to recruit women they can only choose from those who put themselves forward and have the appropriate qualifications. The report shows that employers strongly believe that the key to reducing the gender imbalance lies at an earlier stage - in schools, colleges and universities - which is where the gender divide starts.
Lower female participation rates exist at GCSE level with the gap increasing at A-Level and continuing into higher education and thus the IT professional workforce. The lack of females taking IT related qualifications directly impacts upon the proportion of females that are employed today as IT specialists.
Given that the trend in the under representation of females throughout ICT education and careers has been predominately downwards for some years, it suggests that the employment situation is likely to worsen further - unless there are some significant and meaningful interventions. By 2013, of the 1,129,000 people working as IT specialists in the UK, less than one in six were women.
Firstly the absolute number of women in the IT workforce has risen. The indicators from the self-employed have improved markedly over the past decade with numbers of women more than doubling.
In the education area, when girls do take part in computing subjects at GCSE and A-Level they outperform their male counterparts. The research shows that 76.3 per cent of females (compared to 69.2 per cent of males) who took an IT related full course GCSE were awarded A*- C grades.
Of course this provides a potential pool for IT employers, but only if females can be encouraged into IT careers. This also shows that where a motivating curriculum is offered, young women show an appetite for degree level work in tech, as the high level of female participation in e-skills UK’s ITMB degree demonstrates.
Depends how you look at it...
Some of the headline figures from the report can be looked at as pros or cons, especially if a more global view is taken.
For example female representation within IT specialist roles is higher within the devolved nations than in the UK as a whole (19 per cent vs. 16 per cent). Compared with other EU15 nations the level of female representation in IT positions within the UK is slightly below the norm.
It is positive that women are much more likely to hold technician/engineer grade positions than men with 34 per cent representation among women compared to 20 per cent amongst men but that goes hand-in-hand with women being less likely to be working in ‘professional’ (primarily development related) occupations (46 per cent vs. 57 per cent).
The education picture
Taking a view of ICT education compared to other subjects the picture becomes less positive. Across all subjects in higher education in 2013, females accounted for 57 per cent of UK domiciled applicants and 55 per cent of acceptances, but females made up just 12 per cent of applicants and 13 per cent of acceptances in computer sciences subjects.
STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - see better representation for females with 34 per cent of applicants and 35 per cent of acceptances (UK domicile), but again for the computer sciences there is a huge drop to 12 pre cent applicants and 13 per cent acceptances.
Whilst across all subjects in 2012 females accounted for 59 per cent of UK domiciled qualifiers they accounted for just 18 per cent of qualifiers from all computer science/IT related HE courses. Females who sat an IT related GCSE in 2013 decreased three percentage points compared to 2012, and in 2013 females accounted for just 6.5 per cent of those taking computing A-Level, a decline of 1.5 percentage points compared to 2012.
When the work is there
When women’s education is taken into account from we see a highly-qualified group: just over two thirds (69 per cent) of female IT specialists held some form of HE qualification in 2013. That is not only equal to the proportion to that of their male counterparts, but much higher than that observed for either women or men within the wider workforce. These are capable people.
Which makes it all the more problematic that, at £640 per week, the median gross weekly rate of pay for female IT specialists was 16 per cent less than the comparison figure for men working in IT roles (£760). The recorded level of pay for women IT roles has been consistently below that of male IT specialists in each of the past 10 years.
It’s clear gender imbalance is still a large problem in IT. Reports such as this show, however, that the issue is not one of competence - if anything the performance of girls in education shows that the IT profession is missing out on high quality potential. It’s still a question of keeping this issue in the public eye.