Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

We need more women in tech. Could apprenticeships bridge the gap?

Apprenticeships could increase female representation in STEM roles.

Apprenticeships could increase female representation in STEM roles. Image: Unsplash.

Katie Nykanen
Chief Technology Officer, QA Limited
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Gender Inequality

  • There is a significant gender gap in STEM disciplines around the world, particularly in technology.
  • Cutting-edge technology skills needed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will increasingly be in demand.
  • Apprenticeships are proving a successful alternative for women keen to work in tech.

“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. Women like Kamala are breaking glass ceilings across industries and inspiring young girls to ignore the limitations that many of us over the age of 40 would have repeatedly had reinforced throughout our childhoods.

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But worryingly, STEM – particularly technology – continues to lag behind many industries when it comes to female representation. Just 17% of UK tech jobs are held by women and 19% of computer sciences and technology graduates are female. According to the UN, in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals globally (22%) is a woman.

Female graduates in the UK by STEM subject. Source: STEM Women.
Female graduates in the UK by STEM subject. Source: STEM Women.

With an ever-widening digital skills gap, 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 create a pipeline of diverse and competent talent that can fill the increasing number of roles that will require these skills.

Getting more women and girls into STEM

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, 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.

Apprenticeship success stories

Roberta is an IT Compliance Officer for the Financial Times who 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 and 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.”

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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 school’s 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.”

Achieving gender equality

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.

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Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionEducation and SkillsFourth Industrial Revolution
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