Girls and Ict Careers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:03 pm on 24th April 2013.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 6:03 pm, 24th April 2013

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In single-sex schools, it is certainly the case that more girls study A-level science than in co-educational schools. There is evidence that girls do better in a single-sex environment. It is not clear whether that is due to the presence of strong female role models or, in other schools, the influence of boys who may be more aggressive in taking resources. I would say to my hon. Friend that schools should examine ways of ensuring that girls are engaged and excited. For example, I know that all-girl science and computer science clubs successfully engage girls with ICT in an environment that they find comfortable and stimulating, which is what we are trying to achieve. If we are considering how society socialises girls away from ICT, we could wonder why girls’ toys are generally pink and patronising, and rarely involve any ICT participation, while boys’ toys tend to be more centred on engineering, machines and ICT.

The sample of responses that I received demonstrates just how much is being done. I am worried that Microsoft and Google, which are role models in their own right, do not appear to want to let anyone know how well—or how badly—they are doing. I trust that the Minister agrees that it is essential that we have such information if we are to understand what we need to achieve. However, I was impressed by the measures that many companies are taking to attract girls to ICT, which suggests that there an increasing desire for change which was missing during large parts of my career in the industry. Indeed, I was at an industry event only last night at which several representatives of large ICT companies raised that issue with me before I had the chance to ask them about it. Given that I usually raise the issue with such companies at a very early stage, one can imagine how quickly they beat me to it by talking about that to me.

There is a large number of initiatives in place, and as part of my preparation for this debate, and given that tomorrow is girls in ICT day, I crowd-sourced examples from Twitter. I was impressed by the number of organisations that are actively working to attract girls to ICT. For example, Nominet is sponsoring computer clubs for girls and Sunderland Software City in the north-east is setting up a coders academy. Primary Engineer encourages primary school pupils to engage with STEM education. As we have heard, we know that it is critical to engage girls at a young age, before preconceptions have formed, because by the time that they are taking their GCSEs, they might have ruled themselves out of ICT due to earlier choices. Little Miss Geek, Girl Geeks and ScienceGrrl try to inspire girls into ICT, while WISE promotes female talent in science, engineering and technology from classroom to boardroom. Athena SWAN and STEMNET—the science, technology, engineering and mathematics network—support women in ICT and STEM careers, and help to them become role models for the next generation.

While there are many initiatives, the challenge is to know how well they are working and how to help them to work better, yet I fear that the Government are failing to take up that challenge. I suspect that the Minister will disagree with that, but let us look at the evidence. The Government ended funding for UKRC, the organisation dedicated to supporting girls and women into ICT. They claim to be making the ICT curriculum more flexible, but they are in fact simply disapplying all standards and requirements of the national curriculum. They have reduced support for, and undermined, careers advice, which is the key way of helping into ICT those many girls who have no direct contact with ICT professionals as part of their background.

The Government have reduced support for small and medium-sized businesses. Increasing diversity in the workplace can be more challenging for SMEs that do not have dedicated human resource departments and may instead rely on older recruitment methods—for example, employing friends of current staff, which means that the work force does not become more diverse over time. Of course, employing one’s friends can happen in larger organisations, and even in Government. But the Government should be offering more support for skills in small businesses, rather than turning Business Link from a face-to-face support organisation into a website and a phone line.

We have no roadmap, no plan, no targets and no framework to help us assess whether we are on the right track to attract more girls into ICT. Can the Minister explain what the Government are doing? Can she say how, for example, if I am a teacher in a primary school in Newcastle, I can find out what resources are available to make ICT more appealing, and what incentives there are for doing that? What steps are the Government taking to use subjects which do engage girls, such as climate change, to make ICT more appealing? Will removing climate change from the national curriculum make that easier or harder? How is the Minister ensuring that primary school teachers in particular have the right ICT skills themselves, given the higher salaries paid in the private sector? Research shows that because of the cultural factors relating to ICT and girls, the quality of teaching is a far more important factor in girls’ decisions in relation to ICT than it is in boys’ decisions.

What are the Government doing in response to the Nesta report on video games entitled “Next Gen—Transforming the UK into the world’s leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries”, which said:

“The content and delivery methods of computer science teaching will need to change to address ... misperceptions (especially in the eyes of girls)”?

In December 2011, Ofsted said in its report “ICT in schools 2008-11”:

“Very few examples were seen of secondary schools engaging with local IT businesses to bring the subject alive for their students. This was a particular issue for girls, many of whom need a fuller understanding of ICT-related career and education options to inform their subject choices at 14 and 16 years of age.”

How has cutting back the careers service Connexions to become solely an online and telephone service helped this? The House of Commons Education Committee described this change as resulting in a “worrying deterioration” in the overall standard of careers advice.

The lack of women in ICT is a scandal but it also a huge loss. It is a loss to the country, with a talent pool half the size it could be. Every year the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s skills survey shows a severe skills shortage, and it is no wonder if we are excluding half our population. I am sure the Minister will be interested to know that it also represents a loss to women in not having entry to these rewarding careers and therefore contributes to the gender pay gap. The average technology professional’s salary was over £38,000 per year in 2011, 50% higher than the average across all sectors.

The lack of women in ICT represents a loss to society of the types of ICT that might come from non-male perspectives. I do not hesitate to say that an ICT work force that was more representative of humanity would result in technology which was more humane. All too often technology is imposed upon us aggressively and before it is fit for purpose. And yes, I am thinking of automatic tills at supermarkets when I say that. It is common sense, because we know that innovation comes from the creative exchange of ideas between individuals. If all the individuals in a company or sector come from the same background, there is necessarily a limit to the ideas and innovation.

There is also an intangible loss, but a hugely important one, to our society. Many of the challenges we face, such as climate change, an ageing population with greater health needs and a world of 7 billion people, have technology at their heart, but we are handicapped in addressing them because technology does not have a place in our hearts. Technology will never have the position it merits at the heart of our society and economy if it remains the preserve of such a narrow section of society. To drive our economy forward sustainably, ICT needs to be a part of our society and our culture. Given the challenges we face as a nation, we cannot allow ICT to remain such a male occupation.

In conclusion, to improve the gender balance in ICT the Government need to show leadership in ways that are more concrete than mere warm words of support. I hope that is what I will hear in the Minister’s response.