Tomorrow’s inclusive tech sector starts in the classroom

It seems the issue of diversity in tech is never far from the headlines. In light of this year’s A-level results where only 9.8% of those taking computing were girls and the recent leak of a report from a Silicon Valley employee trying to make excuses for the lack of diversity in the industry; the imbalance in the demographic of those employed in tech jobs is an important issue. We are continually aiming to tackle this through our work. Two of the most deprived boroughs in the UK are the hosts to Silicon Roundabout which thousands of established tech companies and startups also call their home. What are we doing to ensure that those who are right on the doorstep of the industry are not left behind?

This year, in line with our mission, and with additional support from Comic Relief  we have been able to widen our reach even further to encourage those who may not necessarily be interested in tech to learn more about the industry and equip them with the skills which are in huge demand. 

What does gender diversity in the tech industry look like?

Just 17% of the workforce is female. With only 5% of leadership positions in technology held by women, the female population is severely underrepresented.

According to a report by Girls Who Code 74% of young girls express an interest in STEM subjects. Why is this not reflective of the number of women who end up having a profession involving these subjects? There are a number of issues which contribute to this deficit which   we explored in our blog on Girls in Tech . We wanted to investigate further what else can be done to continue a diverse group of students’ engagement with tech.

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Ellora & Mari-Ann from Envirocache pitching as finalists in the European Satellite Navigation Competition 

What do the problems look like?

One of the problems many tech companies blame for their lack of diverse hires is the education system. They claim that graduates with the relevant education and qualifications are mostly male and from affluent backgrounds. The big companies claim that diverse hiring is hard to do if they have a limited pool of talent to source employees from.

By 2020 it’s estimated there will be 1 million vacancies in the industry with not enough STEM graduates to fill them. The main problem seems to be lack of engagement (particularly amongst girls) in computing and interest in pursuing it academically.  

As well as education, culture appears to play a key role in female reluctance to pursue a career in technology. The image of technology companies is that they are culturally geared towards men and a lack of diversity can breed more of the sameness as recruiters tend to hire those who will be a ‘cultural fit’. Making it a vicious circle where new recruits are hired based on their likeliness to their future colleagues rather than on merit of skill.

A lack of female role models can also discourage girls from seeing tech as a viable career choice.  A recent piece of research from Stanford University shockingly found that “66% [of women in Silicon Valley] reported feeling excluded from social and networking activities due to their gender.”

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The Sign Time girls pitching their gamified sign language learning app

The importance of diversity

According to a report by Tech London Advocates diverse companies outperform non diverse ones by 34%. It is evident that having a variety of strengths and outlooks within the team makes for increased creativity and a more rounded output.

It is is also important to bear in mind that the end users of tech products are not one homogenous group but diverse. How can products be made effectively for a complex user base and address all their needs if the majority of those making them are white and male. It is quite probable the problem of one group dominating the development of tech could only get worse as we enter a world of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Digital Agenda explore this in depth in their article on how machines can pick up on any biases fed to them through the data they learn from; which can thereafter be fed into their algorithms. A diverse group of people building these products would be more likely to pick up on and address such biases.

What are we doing to address these issues?

There is inevitably still a long way to go until hiring a diverse employee base becomes the norm. To keep driving the necessary change forward we continue to give free access to technology education to those who would not necessarily have the means (or desire to search it out themselves). Inspiring students at a young age and equipping them with the skills to realise they are able to enjoy STEM subjects has alway been a key priority on the Apps for Good agenda.

Access to inspirational role models has also been one of the key ways we have been engaging students who may not have previously taken an interest in tech. We see this as one of the key stepping stones in the move towards breaking down the barriers some young people may have when it comes to getting technology education. 42% of our active industry Experts are female and we believe young girls seeing other women thriving in tech jobs encourages them and makes them consider that perhaps a career in tech could be relevant and exciting for them.

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The Fellows talking tech at this year’s awards

What have we achieved?

One of our main achievements as an organisation is getting a consistent 50/50 gender split with the students who choose to study the course. This engagement is strongly maintained with 30-50% of our winning teams at the annual awards being mixed or all female teams.  

We also manage to maintain a healthy 50% gender split in those students who sign up to be part of our Fellows program on graduation. This year we celebrated International Women’s Day by giving 48 female students the opportunity to speak with 7 leading women in the tech industry about their careers and how they got the opportunities they did. We have also had 7 female lead expert hang-outs to give students direct access to female role models.  

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50% of the schools where Apps for Good is taught receive a higher than average number of free school meals. It is our mission to continue to reach those young people experiencing barriers to their success, including inspiring more girls to see their future within technology. We have been working at removing the stereotype of computing being a ‘male’ subject early on by ensuring that the course is taught to both genders together. We have also found that the creativity, teamwork and real world learning aspects of the Apps for Good course peaks girls’ interest in the subject to hook them in.   We aim to continue increasing this to ensure that those lacking opportunity to develop their tech skills are provided with the lucrative education and connections.

This year our students have continued to feel positively inspired by the course. Slowly and surely we are helping with driving this change in the status quo. By the time Apps for Good students enter the workforce, we hope it will be a diverse one where people can learn from each other’s differences.

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