I was asked recently at a women in tech event about ways to get children (particularly young girls) more interested in a career in technology. This seems to be coming up more and more at events at the moment and seems to be a bigger focus for people than “how we retain staff” or “creating inclusive workspaces”.
It’s an interesting question but every time I’m asked it I can’t help but want to break it down because, whilst improving the diversity of future generations that choose a career in the technology sector is massively important, I’m not convinced that it’s quite the right question to ask.
I think gender stereotyping of subjects, topics and toys from a young age has a hugely negative effect on children and their future choices. I don’t think that’s the only reason that young girls choose to not go into a career in technology, but it is the one that is most frequently discussed.
I think it comes down to a few things:
One: how do we define a career in technology?
There are a lot of studies, surveys and measures across the word that look at how many women, BAME, LGBT+ there are working in technology but each one has a different definition of what technology is. Are we just counting women working specifically as IT professionals? Do we consider everyone who works in a company specialising in digital to work in the tech sector? Does that include the people in that company who are HR or finance specialists? Are they still “technology” people?
This definition might seem pedantic but I think it’s a large part of the problem. Consulting firm PwC recently released research where they spoke to 2000 school and university-aged people about working in technology. A key finding was that only 27% of girls considered a career in technology. I don’t find that shocking when you consider the lack of clarity about what a career in technology actually is, or might look like.
Two: how do we define a career?
Traditionally in the UK, we’re taught that children do GCSEs, then A-levels, which in turn provide the best chance of doing a university course to ultimately get a job. We’re told that like our parents and grandparents before us, we will start a chosen career, work for a company for X years, then retire.
But work doesn’t work like that any more.
Opportunities to work have broadened, and work itself has become more flexible – people can work from home more, be freelance, work flexible or compressed hours.
At the same time, salaries have stagnated and the cost of living has increased. Lots of younger people need to juggle 2 jobs just to pay rent and boost their visibility to future employers.
Many of the perks that used to keep people tied to their jobs have disappeared. Things like final salary pensions, paid-for or low-cost housing, and healthcare.
It’s not unusual for people (especially those who do anything related to technology) to move between jobs more often, and to sidestep across careers and sectors. Transferrable skills are far more important than years of experience within one culture and one company.
So the definition of “career” is not what it used to be.
Three: what skills do I need for a career in technology?
These are things people have said to me about why they didn’t think a career in technology was for them:
- “I don’t like coding.”
- “I’m not a geeky, nerdy type of person.”
- “I like creative subjects like art and music.”
- “I like physics and biology but I don’t like chemistry.”
Large parts of society (schools, teachers, parents) still seem to think that the choices young people make at school somehow lock them into a specified career for life. Flexibility is frowned upon: changing your choice of degree subject half-way through, or dropping out of university to pursue something else, are both considered failure.
Working in technology is as much about creative skills as it is about any scientific or technological skills, and the best people will have a mixture of both.
If your child has tried coding and doesn’t like it (for whatever reason) don’t try and force them to do it. Find the things that they love. Find new opportunities for them. Find them a challenge or a problem that they need to fix. Introduce them to new and different people and situations.
Your child can learn new skills at any point, but they need to be curious. They need to understand that there are roles for them in “technology” (however it’s defined) even as a creative, dramatic, shy, or code-illiterate person.
I think these things are more helpful for a career in technology than having an A-level in Maths or a degree in Computer Science:
- A willingness to listen to others
- Courage and confidence to make your own decisions and speak your own mind
It’s never too late to learn something new or to try a new career.
And a few resources for parents/people who know kids:
And because it’s never too late:
(There are others but these are the first ones that come to my head.)