Girls in IT: What’s the problem, and how can we solve it?

28th April 2016

Russell Haworth

New research by Nominet holds some good news for the future of Britain’s technology industry. When we asked young people about their “dream job”, IT-based careers took the top three spots. Nearly 25% of 11-18 year olds want to be a computer game developer, with app developer and website developer coming in next at around 13% each. For those of us in the industry — especially those looking ahead to future recruitment needs — it’s good to see that a career in IT is something many young Brits aspire to.

But there is one concern: a persistent gender divide. Only half as many girls as boys want to be an app developer, and only a third as many want to be a computer game developer. 40% of boys tell us they’re “very interested” in working in an IT role in their future career, compared to only 23% of girls. Of course individual young people should be encouraged and supported to pursue the career that most interests them; but collectively, it’s hard not to view this gap as a negative thing.

As IT-based jobs grow in number and importance, we want girls and young women to give due consideration to what can be an interesting and rewarding career path. In a wider sense, given what we know about the value of the digital economy and the benefits companies gain from a more diverse workforce, it’s in everyone’s best interests to have more women entering the industry. In fact, a 2014 Nominet study suggested more women in IT could boost the UK economy by £2.6 billion a year.

So, what causes this gap? According to our research, the top three things putting girls off a career in IT is that they believe it to be boring, too technical, and too hard. How can we counter these negative perceptions? When we asked, “What would be most likely to make you consider a career in IT?” the top response was “Better IT education in schools to help with understanding the job”, with “Advisors within school who can advise on what it is and how to get there” and “After school clubs to help me develop my skills” in second and third place respectively.

It’s clear that at least part of the answer lies in hands-on, stimulating IT education that engages both boys and girls. One example of this is the BBC’s micro:bit, a handheld, programmable computer being given to Year 7 children across the UK. The micro:bit can be used “for all sorts of cool creations, from robots to musical instruments”. At Nominet, we’ve been undertaking some research with the BBC to find a way for micro:bits to talk to one another simply and safely over the internet.  This new functionality could help children learn about how the Internet of Things works and encourage them to build even more “cool stuff”. For example, perhaps a sibling-detector could be built by attaching one micro:bit to a bedroom door, and programming it to trigger a message on another micro:bit when the door is opened. Or, a classroom temperature monitor could be built by aggregating data from a number of micro:bits.

This is just one of many devices, programmes, clubs and competitions aimed at getting young people enthusiastic about technology. We support a number of these through the Nominet Trust, including Apps for Good, which helps students create technology-based solutions to the problems they care about; Code Club, a nationwide network of after-school coding clubs; and the BAFTA Young Game Designers Competition.

Initiatives like these can help demystify the subject, and hopefully spark an interest in IT that will withstand gender stereotypes. We want young women, as well as young men, to have the skills, knowledge and confidence to pursue careers in the fast-growing and exciting technology sector. This is for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of the sector itself. We stand to gain from a large, able and diverse workforce. As the leader of a busy British tech company looking to the future, I certainly don’t want to be recruiting from only half of the talent pool.