Today marks International Women’s Day. This year, the theme is #BreakTheBias, which is particularly apt for the technology industry – and even more so in the world of coding.
Patterns of gender bias and a general lack of inclusivity are frighteningly evident in this sector. Recruitment firm Harvey Nash recently found that people who identify as women account for just 25% of tech workers, and only 12% of technology leaders.
The situation is similar where coding is concerned. Wired recently reported that only 17% of coders in 2019 were women – that is down from the 1940s through to the 1970s when an astounding nine in every ten computer programmers and systems analysts were female.
The figures are certainly reflective of my own experiences from across STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) academia, with women almost always the minority in the room. We must find ways to reset the balance, both by attracting more women into the technology industry, and then nurturing their development.
It is something that requires urgent attention, too. To be able to code is a highly sought-after skill in an increasingly data-driven world, especially post-pandemic – where technology is crucial in assisting businesses with recovery.
Indeed, the UK, like most countries, is suffering from a digital skills gap across the population, with coders among those in high demand but short in supply. Yet this gap can only be filled if the technology industry can access the most diverse talent pool possible.
The imposter syndrome
There is a vicious cycle to be broken. Too few women in coding positions perpetuates the problem, creating perceived barriers that deter others from pursuing this career path.
It all begins with inclusion, which must be a keen focus from a young age. It is not uncommon for women or girls to enter a computer science class and find themselves to be completely outnumbered. Girls are less likely to study STEM subjects at school, which continues through university and into their careers. A study conducted by PwC suggests that over a quarter of female students have been put off a career in technology because the industry is male-dominated.
To be in the minority can, in many cases, fuel the imposter syndrome; this is common among women on computer science courses. Undoubtedly, a sense of not belonging is detrimental to one’s hopes of learning an advanced skill, let alone entering the digital workforce where they may face similar environments.
Focus on inclusivity
It is important to make the process of learning and working in coding more inclusive every step of the way. For instance, as women are more likely to take a career break to start a family or care for a family member, helping them back into the sector is a key factor in narrowing the gap.
How do we achieve this? Through flexible working practices and creating a greater range of methods for women to learn coding skills – such as classes that take place on evenings or weekends. More progressive maternity leave policies will also help support those who have children during their career.
Role models are also hugely important; across all aspects of diversity, people will gain inspiration from the examples they see around them. The more we can do to shine a light on female coders, tech leaders and entrepreneurs, the better the chance of shattering perceived barriers and eradicating the imposter syndrome.
Events like International Women’s Day help achieve this. Positively, there is also a much greater media focus now on discussing the challenges and successes of females in the workplace.
Creating the right culture and offering support
Earlier in this article, I cited some figures illustrating how few women work in coding. Some might ask, therefore, what targets and goals we should put in place.
However, striving for more inclusivity in the workplace is not about hitting quotas, but creating a workplace culture that women would want to be a part of. And certainly, there are advantages to this.
Coding is a creative activity. Through writing code and developing computational processes, coders have the ability to be expressive. As such, it makes sense to have a diverse range of perspectives across a coding team. Also, importantly, a diverse team leads to better problem solving – a crucial element of coding. People from different backgrounds, genders and ethnicities will typically have different viewpoints and, by extension, ways of tackling a problem.
Again, the all-important question is what can be done to achieve this?
Employers must take a holistic view of their practices, processes and support structures. Is the language in the workplace appropriate, or does it alienate certain groups? Do the working practices allow enough flexibility for people juggling different responsibilities outside of work? Can people express themselves freely and report back safely on issues they might encounter? Is there investment into people’s skillsets and long-term development?
Businesses must tackle these key questions, ideally with female voices contributing to the answers.
Digital skills bootcamps to get women coding
Access to skills training is critical, too. For me, a collaborative approach will certainly be required. It will involve public and private sectors working together to implement training avenues that reduce the gender gap in coding as well as the digital skills gap as a whole – digital skills bootcamps are an example of this.
The University of Birmingham runs bootcamps in coding and data analytics. These 24-week courses can be completed in evenings and weekends, and include longer-term support to help participants move into employment in relevant roles.
There have been many great case studies to emerge from the bootcamps. For instance, Sumaya Hassan, a former care assistant, recently secured a junior frontend developer position with global activewear brand Gymshark.
She said: “Coming from a life science and healthcare background, learning to code was a huge challenge for me, but it was totally worth it. I couldn’t be happier in my new role with Gymshark and I have the advice and support of the course leaders during and after the course to thank for that.”
To bolster the bootcamp proposition, the University of Birmingham is also to offer hundreds of scholarships to under-represented groups in the Midlands to help them improve their skills and secure jobs in the technology sector. Delivered through £2.4m in funding from the West Midlands Combined Authority, there will be 600 scholarships (200 per year over three years), each for £4,000. The scholarships are awarded under two categories: ‘Women in Tech’ or ‘Diversity in Tech’.
Employers can benefit from the bootcamps in two ways: they can provide interview opportunities to people who have up-to-date digital skills training, or they can upskill existing employees by enrolling them on the courses.
Not only are the bootcamps an essential tool for upskilling, but they give women the opportunity to bolster their own self-belief in their abilities. This is aided by having access to alumni that are women – some who have gone on to teach what they learned in the courses.
Having more women participating in the bootcamps – and a network of women who have achieved great success having completed previous courses – is hugely important. It creates a larger, more diverse talent pool; it opens up and fast-tracks new career opportunities for women; and it contributes to a more varied, innovative and equitable technology sector.
Nicola Wilkin is a professor of physics and director of education at the University of Birmingham’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. She helps oversee the university’s digital skills bootcamps in coding and data analytics, which are run in partnership with the West Midlands Combined Authority.
This article is part of a paid partnership with the West Midlands Combined Authority.