More women in tech? Get behind apprenticeships
“Worryingly, STEM – and particularly technology – continue to lag behind many industries when it comes to female representation”
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.” When Kamala Harris spoke these words as US vice-president elect, she continued a very welcome trend that has seen an explosion in phenomenal female role models in every walk of life, writes Katie Nykanen, chief technology officer at QA Limited.
Women like Kamala are breaking glass ceilings across industries and inspiring young girls to ignore the limitations that many of us above the age of 40 would have repeatedly had reinforced throughout our childhoods.
But worryingly, STEM – and particularly technology – continue to lag behind many industries when it comes to female representation. According to the UN, in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals globally (22%) is a woman. In the UK, just 17% of tech jobs are held by women and 19% of computer sciences and technology students are female.
With countries around the world facing ever-widening digital skills gaps, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution blurring the lines between our physical and digital worlds, technology skills are only going to become more in demand. It is essential that we find ways to create a pipeline of diverse and competent talent that can fill the ever-increasing number of roles that will require these skills. So what can be done to get more women and girls into STEM, and particularly into technology?
The good news is there are some incredibly bright rays of light if you know where to look when it comes to alternative routes into both tech education and work. This includes tech and digital training programmes and free taster workshops like QA’s Teach The Nation To Code, which has been delivered in almost 60 countries worldwide, as well as options allowing you to study right up to masters degree level while earning on the job. That is what apprenticeships offer, and I believe that with the right level of visibility and support, they could help accelerate the numbers of women and girls working in tech.
Since joining QA, I’ve come across numerous cases where young girls with a passion for tech might have dropped out of pursuing those subjects if they’d continued through traditional education routes rather than opt for an apprenticeship. Roberta and Rosie are just two examples.
Roberta is an IT compliance officer for the Financial Times that didn’t enjoy further education, including her subject choices of chemistry and maths and the academic environment. But she knew she wanted to pursue a career in tech. Not wanting to go back to college for her second year, her mum suggested looking at apprenticeships. From a junior apprenticeship in IT Systems & Networking, Roberta has gone on to achieve a recognised degree through a Degree Apprenticeship. She has held three positions at the FT since she joined, demonstrating the potential for both employment and educational achievements that workplace learning can offer. “I haven’t looked back”, says Roberta. “Right from the start I felt empowered by the responsibility. This was the real difference for me between [college] and an apprenticeship.”
Rosie is another fantastic example of the power of apprenticeships for young women. She says she pursued computing at school because “a guy said that because I’m a girl, I wouldn’t be able to do it”. Determined to prove him wrong she took the course and fell in love with programming. She was approached by Cisco at her schools career fair to apply for an apprenticeship. She went on to become Cisco’s youngest employee globally and achieved a degree debt-free by the time she was 19. Rosie says that one of the biggest benefits of an apprenticeship is that she’s “always learning and building a network of people around me.”
I truly believe the case for growing apprenticeships is powerful and strong. There are thousands of Roberta’s and Rosie’s out there who need to be encouraged to continue their interest in tech. While traditional education might be right for some, it clearly isn’t yet solving the gender problem in STEM, so we must make women and girls more aware of the alternative options before they lose their passion. Apprenticeships are becoming more popular, employers are changing their hiring strategies to target school leavers, and with Degree Apprenticeships there is no need to sacrifice your academic goals. So I call on people in the positions to make a difference – teachers, parents, CTOs, CEOs, and anyone else involved in nurturing, inspiring and hiring talent – to get behind apprenticeships. They are a powerful force for good, especially when it comes to achieving gender equality.
About the author: Katie Nykanen is Chief Technology Officer at QA Limited.