Women in ICT: Breaking the Stereotypes
There has been a lot of discussion of gender and the number of women in certain job types in the last few years. None have received as much focus as women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). More specifically as technology advances into a new age, none has been as widely discussed as women in ICT (Information and Communication Technology). It is generally agreed that there are barriers to women entering industries which have always been traditionally held by young males such as Information Technology. Part of the problem are the stereotypes of IT professionals.
Stereotypes are the Biggest Barrier
Many stereotypes exist about people who work in ICT. Traditionally, we see such professionals as young, socially awkward, with intense personalities, and nearly always male. Sadly, as with most stereotypes, there is something in it. It does indeed attract people who are socially awkward and overwhelmingly, they are young men.
Despite efforts to challenge these stereotypes and encourage greater diversity, the opposite appears to be happening. ICT is increasingly attractive to young men as a professional career choice, but less attractive to young women. Fewer girls are taking ICT qualifications at GCSE or equivalent. Fewer still are going on to study the subject at A-level. Globally, UNESCO reports that just 1/3 of women in education choose computing related qualifications while just 3% enter ICT as a career.
This is problematic as there is no reason women cannot work in IT and no reason why they should feel discouraged in pursuing such a career. The problem is exacerbated by the current global skills shortage, driven by technological advances such as 5G, IoT, machine learning, and cloud technology.
ICT Skills Shortages
Reversing the trend is necessary to make this important industry more diverse and to reverse the current skills shortage. Reports say that even people who work in ICT say it is sexist, a major contributor to the problem. However, the industry currently faces a pressing problem with the exponential growth of IT while already experiencing skills shortages. If people (specifically women) do not want to work in the industry, it will eventually struggle to fill all the available jobs with quality candidates.
To put this in a real-terms context, the World Economic Forum recently claimed that by 2020, there will be a skills shortage of 756,000 in Europe alone. ICT is now in a phase where many believe we are heading towards “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Big Data, Machine Learning, Coding and Cloud Computing and Internet of Things are the largest growth areas and those with the largest skills shortages.
Beating the Stereotypes
The world doesn’t just need more girls taking ICT qualifications as evidence shows this is already happening at GCSE and equivalent level. Girls are attracted to science in school; there appears to be some level of parity here in the western world. Some areas of STEM have more women than men studying at degree level and above. There is a need for more of those who do take relevant qualifications to enter feel that they have a genuine chance at succeeding in an industry relevant to their qualifications.
It is the stereotypes above driving the problem; there is a traditional belief that science is hard and “not for girls”. Some have pointed to a specific kind of Impostor Syndrome that afflicts women in ICT and STEM in general. Being so few, there is a feeling that they must strive to outperform their male colleagues to prove themselves worthy.
- We need a culture that starts girls’ interest in all STEM subjects from a young age. This is not the solution, as the answer is already there. Encouragement that although science is hard and is not for everyone, but that their gender is not and should not be a barrier
- Focus on successful women in ICT, those already making a career. By doing this, we can challenge those stereotypes that it is dominated almost entirely by socially awkward males
- Examine how the education system works from a bottom up perspective. Encourage and motivate girls, take their queries and interests seriously, and help them look at their ICT career options
- Data collection and analysis, not just of gender and age breakdown figures, but also qualitative data such as attitudes towards ICT. There may be a bias inherent in schoolchildren preventing them considering such a career
- Make ICT fun and relevant. Governments, charities and science organisations could do more to promote awareness with schemes, summer camps and science clubs, encouraging greater diversity
These steps when working together, may solve the ICT gender employment gap, encourage more girls, and enable the industry to rise to future challenges.