Girls in ICT: ‘Little or No Progress in 30 years’

- Warm words from Government and industry not enough to tackle the problem

- Debate held ahead of International Girls in ICT Day on 25th April

Google and Microsoft will not even say how many women they employ, it was revealed today in a debate in the House of Commons on ‘Attracting girls to ICT careers’, as MPs were told that in some education courses, the small numbers of girls enrolled has not changed for three decades.

Chip Statistic

Leading the debate, Chi said that the lack of women in ICT is a scandal but it also a huge loss to women, and to society. At a time when there are shortages of ICT skills we are excluding half the population from rewarding careers, she said. Chi spent 23 years as a professional engineer working in Telecoms, before entering Parliament in 2010.

 ‘ICT needs to be a full part of our society and culture’

 Calling on the Government to “show leadership in ways more concrete than warm words of support”, Chi said:

 “[the lack of women in ICT] represents a loss to society of the types of ICT that might come from non-male minds. I do not hesitate to say that having an ICT workforce more representative of humanity must result in technology which is more humane. All too often technology is imposed on us aggressively and before it is fit for purpose. And yes I am thinking of automatic tills at supermarkets when I say that.Disk statistic

 “But there is an additional, intangible, but hugely important loss: technology will never have the position it merits at the heart of our society and economy if it remains the preserve of such a narrow section of society. Given the economic, climatic and social challenges we face as a nation, it is imperative that ICT graduates from its current position as an exclusively male eccentricity

 New Research

Chi wrote to ten of the top ten technology companies in the UK last year, asking how many women the employ and what they are doing to attract more girls into the sector. One company [IBM] did not reply to repeated enquiries.

Of the nine that responded [BAE Systems; Rolls-Royce; Google; Microsoft; ARM; BP; Shell; Ford; and Jaguar Land Rover]:

- Nearly every firm claimed that it was hiring above the national average in terms of the proportion of female engineers/scientists or IT professionals.  The exception was ARM, which did not make the point and candidly added that the proportion was higher in its divisions outside the UK, especially India.

- The two firms that refused to release any numbers were Google and Microsoft.  Both are in the IT field, and are relatively young when set beside the likes of Shell, BP, Ford and Rolls-Royce.  The latter group was more open in releasing numbers, with Ford giving the most detailed breakdown across different job types.

-Most firms hinted that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in engineering and sciences.  Nevertheless, all the firms indicated that getting more women in these fields was a corporate priority. 

-Most firms recognise the importance of female role-models in encouraging female graduates or apprentices to join their firms, and detailed the steps taken to develop networking forums or in pushing high-potential female employees up the hierarchy.

 Notes

- The full research undertaken on top ICT firms employment of women can be found here: http://chionwurahmp.com/wp-content/uploads/Women-in-tech-careers.docx%20

The House of Commons Library Research can be found here: http://chionwurahmp.com/wp-content/uploads/1304-202.docx

- An article accompanying the debate has been published online here: http://centrallobby.politicshome.com/latestnews/article-detail/newsarticle/chi-onwurah-mp-government-warm-words-failing-girls-in-ict/

 

 The full speech is below. Check against delivery.

 

Attracting Girls into ICT

 

Thank you Mr/Madame [Deputy] Speaker.

I’m delighted that I have this opportunity to speak to the House on such an important issue today.

Tomorrow is International Girls in ICT Day so it is particularly appropriate that we mark the occasion by debating how we can do more to attract girls into Information Communications Technology. 

I understand that the Minister for Culture Communications and the Creative Industries will be marking the day by speaking at a Little Miss Geek celebration of fashion and technology and I am glad to see a Government minister supporting efforts to encourage girls into ICT.

Celebrating technology, and women’s contribution to it,  is one way of helping  the sector becomes more representative of the 51% of the population who do not have the Y chromosome. Right now women make up only 12% of professional engineers and 15% of those applying for computer science degrees.

But I do hope that the Government and particularly the Minister will do more than speak at events and offer warm words of encouragement.

I hope and indeed expect that they will implement concrete measures to ensure that we overcome the dreadful disparity in the representation of women in ICT, a disparity which shames us as a nation and hampers our economic and social progress.

As you may know Mr Speaker it is a subject very dear to my heart. Having worked as a professional engineer in Telecoms for 23 years before entering this House I know just how much more can be done to encourage and support women in ICT.

It is clear that we are not succeeding in attracting girls into ICT. And that the situation is not improving.

When I started my degree 12% of my fellow electrical engineering students were women; almost 30 years have passed since then Mr Speaker – it sounds like a very long time when put like that but the depressing thing is not how long it has been but that whilst women now make up 43 per cent of GPs, 41 per cent of solicitors and even 22 per cent of MPs the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all.

Indeed in computer science the figures are actually getting worse. The proportion of computing A levels taken by women went down from 12% to 8% between 2004 and 2011. There is only one girl for every eleven boys in the average UK A level computing class in 2011. Think how that feels if you are that one girl.

At the same time half of the UK’s co-educational state schools send no girls at all to sit A level Physics.

In 2012 2,400 home female students were accepted onto full-time undergraduate computer science courses as opposed to 15,100 men.

Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of tech jobs held by women declined from 22% to 17%.

Only 6pc of those who work in the games industry in the UK are women despite the fact that they make up 50% of those who play games.

Gender segregation is most extreme in skilled trades like electricians, with women forming roughly 1 per cent of the workforce in these occupations.

I could go on Mr Speaker, I commissioned House of Commons Library research on the subject matter and they have armed me with a great number of similar statistics.

It is clear that we are doing worse than many of our European and OECD peers.

But I want to focus the debate on what we can do about it, we being the ICT sector, civil society and as I hope the Minister will acknowledge, Government.

I worked in the sector as an ICT engineer for twenty three years. Often I was lucky enough to have great male bosses who were determined that the almost all male working environment should not be a barrier to a successful career.

But I have also known other managers who were not so supportive and company cultures which worked against attracting girls and women into ICT, and did nothing to help them stay there.

As Shadow Minister for Innovation last year I wrote to ten of the leading companies in the engineering and technology sector to ask them what they were doing to improve the situation: BAEsystems, Google, Microsoft, IBM, ARM, Rolls Royce, BP, Shell, Ford and Jaguar Landrover.

The responses are summarised on my website. What was quite amusing was that two of the companies addressed their response to ‘Mr Onwurah’.  I shan’t name them but it did make me wonder how accustomed they were to engaging with women.

Not surprisingly nearly every company claimed that it was hiring women in proportions above the national average.  The exception was ARM, who candidly said that the proportion of women was higher in its divisions outside the UK, especially India.

Female literacy in India is just 65% as against 82% for men so the fact that they are doing better than we are on ICT gender balance is particularly striking.

Also striking was the fact that IBM did not respond and Google and Microsoft responded but refused to release any figures. As relatively young companies, in comparison with Shell and Rolls Royce say, Google and Microsoft might be expected to be at the forefront of gender equality.  Both cited  confidentiality as the reason for not revealing the proportion of women they had working in ICT.

Now that suggests that either Google and Microsoft do not know how to aggregate and anonymise such information which, given they are leaders in Big Data management, is very worrying or alternatively they have so few women employees, giving the figure would necessarily identify individuals. That is also very worrying!

The more traditional companies were more open in releasing figures, with Ford giving the most detailed breakdown across different job types.

Most firms thought that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in ICT, engineering and science and all the firms said that getting more women in these fields was a corporate priority.  Most outlined steps taken to redress this, from overhauling corporate procedures (e.g. making sure women are on interview panels) to intervening early in schools to steer girls towards STEM subjects and careers.

Companies emphasised the importance of female role-models in encouraging female graduates or apprentices to join them, and detailed the steps taken to develop networking forums or in pushing high-potential female employees up the hierarchy.

ARM was the most forthright when asked what private or public initiatives firms have found useful in this area.  It said “most initiatives that directly address the issue are clearly failing at a national level and make little difference”. 

According to the ARM representative, the most effective means would be role models and TV commentators or presenters who make the subjects sexy and exciting.

I agree in part. A high profile TV series on women in ICT would probably change perceptions overnight. We know what Silent Witness did for the proportion of women in forensics.

But the responses I receive show the wide range of challenges we face. So as well as improving the image of ICT, we need to look at  the working environment of women who are in ICT,  and who are or could be role models, recruitment into ICT, higher education, secondary, primary education, and careers advice. And our culture which socialises girls to think ICT is not for them. Why are girls toys generally pink and patronising rather than ICT friendly?

The sample of responses also demonstrates just how much is being done. I am worried that Microsoft and Google, role models in their own right, do not appear to want to let anyone know how well, or badly, they are doing and I hope the Minister will agree that information here is essential if we are going to understand what we need to achieve.

But I was impressed by the measures that many companies are taking to attract girls to ICT. It suggests that there is increasingly that desire for change which I should say was so missing during large parts of my career. Indeed only last night I was at an industry event where a number of representatives of large ICT companies raised the issue with me before I had the chance to ask them about it!

And there are a large number of initiatives. As part of the preparation for this debate I crowdsourced ideas and examples from twitter.

I was impressed by the number of organisations which are actively working to attract girls to ICT. For example Nominet is sponsoring Computer Clubs for Girls, Sunderland Software City is setting up a Coders Academy, Primary Engineer encourages primary school age pupils to engage with STEM education.

We know that engaging girls at a young age and before preconceptions have formed is critical, by the time they are taking their GCSEs they may already have ruled themselves out of ICT.

Little Miss Geek, Girl Geeks and Science_grrl seek to inspire girls into ICT whilst WISE promotes female talent in science, engineering and technology from classroom to boardroom. AthenaSwan and STEMnet support women in ICT and STEM careers and help them become role models for the next generation.

The challenge is to know how well these initiatives are working and to help them work better in the future.

It is a challenge Mr Speaker that I fear this Government is so far failing to take up. I know the Minister will disagree but let us look at the evidence.

It ended funding for UKRC, the organisation dedicated to supporting girls and women into ICT. It claims to be making the ICT curriculum more flexible but in fact is simply disapplying all standards and requirements of the National Curriculum.  It has reduced support and undermined careers advice, absolutely the key way of helping into ICT those girls who have no direct contact with ICT professionals as part of their background.

It has reduced support for small and medium businesses. Mr Speaker, Increasing the diversity of the workforce can be more challenging for SMEs who don’t have dedicated human resource departments and may instead rely on ‘older’ recruitment models– for example employing ‘friends’ of current staff which sometimes means that workforce diversity remains the same.

Of course employing your friends can happen in larger organisations, and even in Government.

But the Government should be offering more support for skills in small businesses rather than turning Business Link from face to face support into a website.

Mr Speaker we have no roadmap, plan, targets or framework to help us assess if we are on the right track in attracting more girls into ICT

Can the Minister explain what the Government is doing? Can he say how for example if I am a teacher in a primary school in Newcastle I can find the resources to help me make ICT appealing and what are the incentives for doing so?

What steps is the Government taking to use subjects which do engage girls, such as climate change, to make ICT more appealing to girls? Will removing climate change from the national curriculum make this easier or harder?

How is the Minister ensuring that particularly primary school teachers have great ICT skills themselves, giving the higher salaries paid in the private sector? Research shows that because of the cultural factors relating to girls and ICT, quality of teaching is more important for girls.

What is the Government doing in response to NESTA published a report entitled Next Gen. – Transforming the UK into the world’s leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries which said

“The content and delivery methods of computer science teaching will need to change to address … misperceptions (especially in the eyes of girls).”

The December 2011, Ofsted report entitled ICT in schools 2008-11 said

Very few examples were seen of secondary schools engaging with local IT businesses to bring the subject alive for their students. This was a particular issue for girls, many of whom need a fuller understanding of ICT-related career and education options to inform their subject choices at 14 and 16 years of age.

How has cutting back the careers service Connextions to become solely an online and telephone service helped this? A change the House of Commons Education Select Committee described as resulting in a “worrying deterioration” in the overall standard of careers advice.

Mr Speaker the lack of women in ICT is a scandal. But it also  a huge loss.

A loss to the country in a talent pool half the size it could be.  Every year the IET’s Skills Survey shows a severe skills shortage and it is no wonder if we are excluding half our population.

It also represents a loss to women in not having entry to these rewarding careers and also contributes to the gender pay gap. The average technology professional’s salary was £38,262 in 2011, 50% higher than the average across all sectors. [£26,200]

It represents a loss to society of the types of ICT that might come from non-male minds. I do not hesitate to say that having an ICT workforce more representative of humanity must result in technology which is more humane. All too often technology is imposed on us aggressively and before it is fit for purpose. And yes I am thinking of automatic tills at supermarkets when I say that.

But there is an additional, intangible, but hugely important loss: many of the challenges we face as a society – climate change, a population that lives longer and has more health needs, a world of seven billion people – many of these challenges have technology at their heart.

But we are handicapped in addressing them, because technology does not have a place in our hearts.

And technology will never have the position it merits at the heart of our society and economy if it remains the preserve of such a narrow section of society.

To drive forward our economy sustainably, ICT needs to be a full part of our society and culture. Given the economic, climatic and social challenges we face as a nation we cannot allow ICT to remain an exclusively male occupation.

To improve the gender balance in ICT the Government needs to show leadership in ways more concrete than warm words of support.

Written by

Chi's Parliamentary Researcher. Contact: simmondsma@parliament.uk or 020 7219 7114

1 Comments to “Girls in ICT: ‘Little or No Progress in 30 years’”

  1. As a female ICT/CS secondary school teacher, I work hard with my female Head of Department to encourage girls to take CS at GCSE. In our first year of offering GCSE Computing (2012) we had 2 girls, this year we have had 7 girls sign up.

    We have been working hard to encourage girls to be involved in coding and CS. We recently entered the Technovation Challenge which had a final in the US – but we didnt make it to the final :( . We worked alongside female mentors from Cisco and this involvement has been totally inspiring for the girls.

    Maybe the key is closer links with female mentors in industry – this experience has been life changing. http:/wp.me/p3iRSc-3 – our blog about our journey.

    The girls will be presenting at a group of teachers at an Apps for Good Session which is being held at Manchester University on the 2nd May – to talk about their experience.

    We are going to be developing the app – with TechGirlsUK of course!

  2. [...] a software diagnostician in CERN, I was used to being in the 12% minority that Chi Onwurah MP highlighted in her keynote speech at Women Shift [...]

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