The key to closing the UK skills gap is bridging the gender divide

Lamentation over Britain’s skills gap rarely escapes the media. Even during the general election campaign it has been no different, with all three main parties promising measures to help plug the gap – whether through education, apprenticeships, or changes to immigration policy. But where Britain continues to fall short in this debate is on how women could be a significant factor in its solution.

Women represent a largely untapped source for Britain’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills market. According to the Office for National Statistics, despite representing 46% of the labour market, women still only make up 10% of the STEM workforce (excluding health-related occupations). And despite frequent discussion by industry bodies around women’s underrepresentation, it is not yet converting into a greater uptake by women of careers in these sectors.

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Regardless of many great initiatives to help girls develop STEM skills, British girls’ uptake and performance in this field falls behind the global market. A recent report from the OECD has revealed that Britain has one of the worst records in science performance for girls in the world, revealing that boys in the UK are outperforming girls by 13 percentage points in international tests.

Britain cannot hope to resolve its skills gap if we continue to expect and accept that only half the population makes up the significant majority in these professions. A long-term plan must be set out, with input from both government and businesses, to encourage more women to enter into STEM careers, and support and stimulate Britain’s industry and economy.

Benefits to the business

Diversity within a business is important. Research by Gallup found that a gender-diverse workforce can improve a company’s bottom line, not to mention provide more diverse ideas and insight. But where gender diversity is so crucial to an organisation, and this is particularly true of STEM industries, is that it helps companies attract and retain talented staff locally.

The lack of women within these industries can ultimately force companies to look overseas and incur potentially expensive recruitment programmes. The government’s official immigration advisers have already stated that Britain’s technology start-ups are facing a disadvantage because visa rules are blocking them from hiring skilled workers from outside Europe. With an ever increasing demand for these skills, if 50% of the British population remains alienated from these careers, there will be damaging effects to British industry.

Bridging the divide

If Britain hopes to bridge its STEM skills gap, politicians and industry bodies must consider a long term plan, rather than looking for quick fixes. The incumbent government’s initiative to introduce coding into the national curriculum is a good example of innovating what students are learnings to inspire them and equip them with practical skills.

A bigger shift is needed, beyond just changing what young people learn. Research has repeatedly shown that girls tend to lack confidence in their capacity for technology and science subjects, even as young as 10 or 11. This perception is only reinforced by OECD’s findings that parents are more likely to push boys towards careers in science and technology. Schools must ensure that they do their best to dispel myths that these are ‘boys’ subjects’, and instead highlight girls’ achievements and promote tangible benefits, like the higher average wages in STEM careers.

But businesses have an important role to play too. Providing more high quality apprenticeship programmes is a crucial means for opening up opportunities for young people to pursue highly successful careers in the technology sector. With so much discussion around sexism and women’s treatment in the technology industry recently, sparked off by the Ellen Pao case, real enterprise experience will be key to encouraging more women to choose to careers in the STEM industries.

Also, businesses must demonstrate that they have created an environment which is beneficial to and provides adequate opportunities to women. Flexible working opportunities are a key driver when choosing a career for many women who plan to have children, without ruining their careers.

The technology industry should therefore demonstrate that its innovation extends beyond its products, by promoting how they use technology to enable a more flexible, productive workforce. These opportunities can then in turn breakdown barriers for working mothers, and age old criticisms of women juggling work and home can also be put to bed.

Tackling the gender divide in technology is too often seen as a feminist agenda rather than a business agenda. But without tackling the culture that reinforces the skills gap for 50% of the population, the UK can never be a leading source of technical innovation. Only by investing in our future female workforce are businesses guaranteed the necessary manpower, skills and diversity of ideas for future success.

We have an opportunity to plug the skills gap. But the government and businesses must commit to devising and investing in a long term plan to increase women’s representation in these industries, rather than just announcing large one-off investments to score political or PR points. Britain already has the credentials and the potential to become a global leader in technology. Bridging the gender gap is the key to our industry’s future success – we just need to do it! Because if we don’t act now, it may take generations until the UK achieves its potential.

Sourced from Jacqueline de Rojas, area VP of Northern Europe at Citrix

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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