Martin Brown: Bridging the IT sector's gender gap

We've heard so much recently about the skills shortage in Scotland's tech industry and what a massive problem it is '“ a problem that's being made significantly worse by the sector's failure to attract more female talent.

Martin Brown, Scottish country manager at EMC. Picture: Contributed
Martin Brown, Scottish country manager at EMC. Picture: Contributed

This isn’t just about diversity, and what skills the industry is missing out on thanks to its dearth of female employees – it’s an economic problem too. According to the recent Tech Nation report by Tech City UK and innovation charity Nesta, 43 per cent of UK digital tech businesses say the skills shortage is limiting their growth.

More than 84,000 people currently work in digital tech in Scotland, but recent research published by the Tech Partnership suggests that only 18 per cent of these are women. If you take the majority of the female population out of the pool of potential talent available to the industry, it’s hardly surprising there’s a drought.

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Recently in Edinburgh an event was held on this very subject – Pledge for Parity in the Technology Sector, organised by law firm DLA Piper – where some of the country’s top female tech executives, such as Ann Budge and Skyscanner’s chief legal officer Carolyn Jameson, met to discuss the problem and what can be done to tackle it.

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My own feeling is that confronting the issue involves a two-pronged attack – firstly on the sector’s geeky image problem that puts girls off even thinking about a career in tech in the first place, and secondly on the macho culture within the industry. This includes men in tech collectively realising what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Here’s where the problem begins: only one in five girls would currently consider a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (known as STEM) compared with more than half of boys. Politicians have recognised the problem – the SNP’s Holyrood manifesto included plans for a STEM ambassador network, so that by 2020 every school is working with a partner from the private or third sector, who will be particularly focused on encouraging more girls to study STEM subjects.

The Scottish Greens called for transferable digital skills to be taught in schools, and for tech businesses to engage more with schools. Scottish Labour promised a multi-million pound investment in teaching computer code to primary school teachers, so they could pass on the skill to their pupils from Primary 1 onwards.

While this is already happening on a small scale, I’d also like to see more positive female role models visiting both primary and secondary schools on a regular basis to educate girls about the wide variety of careers available in tech, and to let them know that there’s an exciting and lucrative job just waiting for them. A tech graduate is going to find it easy to find a well-paid job – the average salary of an IT programme or project manager is higher than your average dentist, architect or vet but budding graduates remain blissfully unaware of this.

There are some glimmers of hope in schools south of the border, with the WISE Campaign reporting a steady increase of girls taking up STEM subjects for GCSE and A-Level, with stats showing they are outperforming their male peers in terms of attainment. Let’s hope this soon spreads to Scotland.

Perhaps many girls don’t realise that you don’t necessarily need to go down the STEM path to find a career in tech. The industry also needs creative, innovative minds; those who can think outside the box and come up with new ideas. They don’t necessarily need to be academic, or even able to code – if the idea is good, it can be passed to a coder who can turn it into a product. My daughter, a marketing and business management graduate, now helps customers design user interfaces. Some of her colleagues graduated in arts and psychology, which goes to show that the paths into the tech industry are many and varied.  

Once you have persuaded women into a tech career, the second problem of workplace culture rears its ugly head. A poll in late 2014 suggested that three-quarters of women in tech think the industry is sexist, with even more saying they’d lost out on promotion or equal pay. Some respondents talked of a misogynist culture, which is difficult to challenge without getting men on board. There is still a long-hours culture in some tech workplaces, which tends to disproportionately affect women with families. However, I do believe this aspect is changing for the better as many technology companies, including EMC, are increasingly embracing the flexible, remote and “virtual” working practices which are normally highly attractive to women seeking a better work-life balance.

Some people argue that women are under-represented in tech simply because they don’t choose to join our industry; it doesn’t interest them. If that really were the case, then we’d just have to accept it. But if, as evidence suggests, many girls are interested in a career in tech but aren’t following that interest because they don’t like the sector’s uncool image, that’s a bit different.

And if skilled women are leaving the industry because they’re not being treated fairly, or feel they have no prospects, then that’s a problem we need to address. Until we can fill the thousands of vacancies that exist in our industry, losing one talented woman is one too many.

• Martin Brown is Scottish country manager at IT group EMC