Amid exam results chaos, green shoots for the tech sector

4th September 2020

Eleanor Bradley

Eleanor Bradley
MD Registry & Public Benefit

Unless you’ve been avoiding the news this past month, you will have heard some of the furore around exam results this year. But what we haven’t heard enough about is the fact that 11.7% more students chose to study Computing at A Level this year – with over 20% more entries from females. We also saw Maths retaining its position as the most popular subject to take at A Level, with a 2.5% rise in entries across both genders and an uplift of almost 5% from girls.

For those of us working in the tech sector, this is promising news in what has long been a worrying situation. Not only do we face a skills shortage, with vacancies outstripping supply across the industry, but the gender ratios are dispiriting too. Figures show that women make up just 17% of the IT specialists in the UK, with very little growth visible over the past decade despite an increased awareness of the importance of gender parity in this influential industry. If digital innovation does not emerge from a workforce that represents the world we live in, how can we hope to build a digital future that works for all?

Even a modest rise in the number of students showing interest in topics like Computing and Maths is hopeful, suggesting we may see better times ahead for the tech talent pipeline and gender diversity. I also hope that this indicates the start of a societal shift away from STEM subjects being seen as ‘only for boys’ or parents steering their daughters away from roles in tech. Coupled with the growth and dominance of the sector – research from our pre-Covid-19 world showed that the tech sector is growing six times faster than the UK economy – we can start to hope that future generations will begin to move towards this exciting and broad-ranging industry.

To see a rising interest in Computing across both genders could suggest that young people are recognising the importance of digital capabilities for the future of work. Basic digital skills are now essential life skills – and it isn’t enough to simply be a whizz on TikTok. This future generation needs the digital skills to reap the rewards of a life online – to be master and not slave to the technology – and the schooling in how to keep themselves safe and behave appropriately when using the internet as it becomes an ever-more dominant part of their lives.

This is something we take seriously at Nominet, conscious of the key role our younger generation will play in the digital future. As part of our mission to use tech to make a positive difference to the lives of one million young people a year by 2020, we have various initiatives and grants running to drive the uptake of digital skills as well as raising awareness of the digital roles available to young people when they join the workforce.

In the latter area, we are currently working in partnership with Livity on a podcast series called This is How. Each episode shines a light on a different role in the digital industries by interviewing someone doing it, discovering more about their career path, their daily responsibilities and why they enjoy their work. This is supported by online resources that provide advice and ‘next steps’ for those keen to seek a similar role.

We are also working with the Scouts on a Digital Citizenship Badge to help educate their thousands of members to act responsibly when online. The comprehensive programme covers everything from how to spot fake news and access apps and online services correctly, to how to be empathetic and conscientious when online. The badge curriculum also guides scouts on the ways they can use technology and the internet to positively impact their local community; how to be a good citizen in digital times.

Nominet is just one of many companies, charities and voluntary organisations across the country working hard to prepare our young people for the digital future. These efforts are critical but we can only get young people so far with our interventions. They must discover for themselves a passion for technology and a drive towards the opportunities a career in the sector can offer, as well as developing a cautious, inquiring approach to keep themselves safe online.

As a woman working in the tech sector, I am always cheered when I see even a tiny increase in the percentages of girls taking courses like Computing and Maths. It was even better to see in this year’s data that there was complete gender parity across entries for all the science subjects available at A Level. This is a small silver lining for a sector that continues to struggle to achieve gender parity – the more interest girls are showing in all STEM subjects, the more we can hope they will find their way into tech.

Of course, these are just green shoots for the sector – we have a lot more work to do to truly start to turn the tide and attract more young people towards the many interesting roles available in our varied, fulfilling and ever-changing sector.

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