IT is not fair - something must be done!
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IT is not fair - something must be done!

IT is not fair - something must be done!

Posted on 21st December 2018

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Over the last four blogs, I’ve considered the statistical background to the skills shortages that bedevil the tech/digital industries, looked at some of the reasons for them and, in particular, investigated some of the reasons women are massively underrepresented.  For many, especially those with a political rather than a practical agenda, this is a matter of basic equality and fairness that simply requires “someone to do something.”

In my opinion, complaining that “it’s not fair”and “something must be done”will not necessarily get us very far.  Similarly, the increasingly polarised academic and political worlds need to be honest with us.  For example, we are not going to advance things if there are indeed a lot of ingrained, possibly both stereotypical and innate, reasons why (some) women do not want to work in IT - but no-one on either side wants to admit they might be wrong. I am not a biologist or a social scientist and will leave that debate up to the academics, but I do know that, accepting that each individual’s case will be slightly different, there is much that we can do to help get more people interested in working in what is, arguably, the most important sector in the economy today.

However, firstly, one of the biggest problems with trying to pin down the dimensions of this problem is that there are so many figures bandied about, many of which are ambiguously reported. For example, the otherwise excellent Education Technology site implies that the OU’s £2bn cost of STEM skills shortages applies to the entire skills gap, without making it clear that this figure is only for the additional costs of recruitment. If you then look at the figures of £63bn quoted as the cost of the unfilled tech vacancies and compare it, to choose a topical example, with the £100bn Treasury estimate of the cost of Brexit under Theresa May’s proposed deal, it’s hard to get your head around it. Can those unfilled jobs really be worth so much?  What happens if it’s worse than the £63bn –or better? And, more pertinently, what can we do to mitigate this?

That we need to agree consistent definitions of the parameters of the problem is illustrated by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report from June 2018. In this, they note that the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy “do not currently have sufficient understanding of what specific skills businesses really need  (and) there is no universal definition of what should be counted as a STEM subject or job, which makes it difficult for government to clearly understand what STEM skills are needed. As technology advances, the skills required of the workforce change, but the pace of change means that skills development often lags behind.

Well, yes, and I should perhaps add #scary, but that doesn’t absolve current or previous governments from the fact that they/we have consistently got this wrong for decades. It’s clear that we really do need consistent definitions of the parameters for this debate otherwise we are simply reduced to taking miscellaneous stats from various sources to support whatever case anyone wants to make.  

And while we are on the subject of the government, let’s think about how they can do more.

Governments, although they don’t like to advertise the fact too loudly, are drivers of social change.  From universal emancipation to stopping us harming our own and other people’s health by smoking in public places they have played a major role over time in changing behaviour.  It’s not that long ago that homosexuality was illegal, that jobs could be advertised for men only and we had never had a female Prime (or First) Minister. 

One key area where government must do better is in driving up standards at every level, but especially at secondary schools where, as noted in the second of these blogs, the UK ranks 41st in the world for quality of science education.  That said, the first challenge is the quantity (or rather lack) of teachers and creating the conditions by which people want to teach computer science (dare I suggest paying a premium to the tech teachers?) is a first step. Then, adjusting the law to shift attitudes to sexist behaviour, listening to industry and working with the HE sector so that employers believe university courses are producing graduates with a full range of technical and soft skills would also help. These and many others fall within government’s bailiwick and once (if) we are free of the all-encompassing embrace of Brexit our legislators need to get to work here. And as far as Brexit is concerned, a genuinely innovative and open approach to international IT talent, delivered via a sound new immigration policy, would be extremely welcome. 

Unfortunately, governments tend to follow the herd rather than lead it, but, when it comes to the issue of getting more women into IT, the herd is leading us in the right direction, towards changing the ways in which women think about certain careers. Back in the day, women didn’t think – weren’t allowed to think – about any career, at least not once they’d become pregnant.  Things have changed since then. There is no reason why they can’t change in the future. The door is opening and the pressure from the influencers in society (including, to be fair, many politicians) is gravitating towards women being encouraged to take up STEM. 

So yes, government can do a lot more, but let’s be honest, if we want to engender real change then the IT industry can do this faster, both within the private sector and as influencers on the public sector. There are lots of good ideas floating around. Perhaps Mary Ann Sieghart (former Assistant Editor of The Times) has a point when she says that, “Girls at maintained single-sex schools are two-and-a-half times more likely to take Physics A Level than girls at similar co-ed schools.  Putting more images of women scientists in textbooks has been shown to make girls perform better than boys in science tests.  Educate girls separately might be the answer?”  

Certainly, the mainstream and specialist press has a part to play.  Regular articles, especially reporting key research findings, help change public opinion and also challenge those with more ‘entrenched’ attitudes. 

Or take charitable organisations such as Career Ready (declaration – I am a non-exec), which work tirelessly to connect disadvantaged young people with the world of work, unlocking their potential and levelling the playing field. Last year, our network of 4,000+ volunteers from 700 employers helped to transform the lives of 29,000 young people in 300+ schools & colleges.  There are lots of other similar charities, from organisations like the National Youth Agency, Positive Youth Foundation and the Princes Trust, all dedicated to helping youngsters into the world of work.

Then there are the coding clubs, mentioned in the second part of this series, plus adult equivalents like Code Clan Scotland and similar organisations south of the border. Be-IT is proud to have sponsored several students through Code Clan and seen them go on to good jobs.

However, perhaps the biggest influence the private sector can have is in changing people’s attitudes. Recruitment firms, as well as the press, can have an impact here.  Given that all IT recruiters speak to, literally, thousands of tech firms and candidates every day, we should help to make the more “traditional” views and those sexist attitudes a thing of the past. With the ever-growing problem of skills shortages across many different areas of IT, it is common sense to try to increase the pool of qualified workers.   No pressure, but the future of the economy depends on it.

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT


Posted in Opinion, Recruitment News, STEM

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