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How diversity can help with the UK’s digital skills

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With women representing just 17 per cent of tech sector workers, the Government’s recent digital strategy outlines the plans to address this gender imbalance in its bid to boost digital skills. Sheila Flavell, Chief Operating Officer at FDM Group, which was referenced in the strategy for its innovative work on this issue, explains why it’s important.

Women make up almost half of the workforce but they are barely visible in the tech sector with the number of women represented falling off in recent years. There are already a number of programmes doing valuable and innovative work to encourage and help more women into tech but somehow we have not yet fully solved this problem and realised the true potential of diversity in our teams. 

There are many theories as to what is putting off women working in technology. Common consent appears to be three fold. We need to start young and encourage girls to study computer science, we need role models so that girls and women can see that they too can succeed in the industry, and we need to change the culture within the tech sector.

Changes to the curriculum

In recent years I’m pleased to say we’ve seen changes to the curriculum, a plethora of role models and mentoring opportunities, the creation of code clubs for girls and many more initiatives to achieve change. However, the issue of culture appears to be the hardest thing to tackle. 

Nevertheless, it’s not impossible and we are now seeing many companies looking hard at what they can do to embrace diversity, from introducing recruitment strategies, addressing unconscious bias to adopting flexible working patterns and much more. 

Within our own organisation, we’ve developed a culture based on clear values that embrace our differences. We’ve chosen to focus on potential and through this we’ve achieved above the national average for women in tech; 26 per cent of our employees are women. We’ve done this because we believe in equality; it’s the right thing to do, but also because it makes business sense. To omit half of the workforce when recruiting means you’re missing out on half of the talent and with the skills gap looming that’s simply no longer an option.

So what else can we do? 

I firmly believe in encouraging more young people to study STEM subjects but while we wait for this pipeline to filter through we need to look at all options. 

Given the diversity of digital roles today, we know that a technology related degree is not always necessarily required to gain employment. Many of the skills developed by graduates on non-STEM degrees can be transferred into digital roles. This opens up the industry to many more women given that, proportionately, not many take IT related courses (only 27 per cent of students taking IT related A-levels in 2014 were female). This is contrary to what many students may think. Getting this message across to students who may be unsure if they can get into IT without a computer science degree could unlock a hidden talent pool that ultimately may help us meet the growing demand for digital skills and provide a source of young talented women.

Changing the culture

There’s also a growing realisation of the role that returners can play in making the tech sector more diverse. As employers, we’re all struggling to find people with the skills and experience we want but there’s a pool of people out there who have taken a career break and now want to return. There are over 2 million women who looking to get back to work, this is an enormous opportunity for all of us. It’s also important for the UK economy - increasing female participation in the British labour force could add £170bn to the UK economy and boost GDP by 9 per cent (PwC, 2016).

We’re seeing that many employers are waking up to the benefits of hiring returners into their teams as a great way to introduce high-calibre, experienced professionals who can make a difference from day one and at the same time increase the diversity within teams. 

However, it’s not just the individual organisation that will benefit by hiring a returner. Returners could be a key part of the answer to changing culture at the top levels across business and the profession as whole. 

Quite simply by employing highly skilled, dynamic women at a similar level to when they left for a career break, we can begin to develop a pipeline of women who can progress through the management structure and reach board levels and drive greater diversity. 

If we get this right and get these professional women back into careers at the similar levels to the ones they left, we will not only provide successful role models for others and begin to change the culture associated with career breaks but it will also help reduce the gender pay gap – something we’ve been struggling with for quite some time now. 

With the Government laying out its intentions in the Digital Skills Strategy, is this our chance to finally unlock the solutions that will allow us to tackle the diversity gap in technology?  

The Government’s Digital Strategy outlined many initiatives with some of the most recognisable names in the sector, but however large or small we are, we’ve all got a role to play and to ultimately benefit from the changes we make. From changing the idea that IT is an inaccessible field, helping children, teachers and parents better understand the variety and potential IT and digital careers, to adopting recruitment strategies that support diversity and social mobility. If we can do this, we can ensure that the UK has a viable answer to the looming IT skills gap and remain innovative and competitive in the global tech field. 

Sheila Flavell, Chief Operating Officer, FDM Group
Image source: Shutterstock/

Sheila Flavell
Sheila Flavell is Chief Operating Officer of FDM Group. Sheila is fully committed to driving gender diversity in the workplace and spearheads FDM’s global Women in IT campaign.