Gender balance in the digital world

woman-using-a-laptop-in-the-office, gender balance
Credit: #WOCinTech Chat

Female representation in the digital world is a hotly debated topic, as while the number of women working in Information Communication Technology (ICT) in the UK increased by 35% between 2014 to 2015 to total 17.5% of the sector’s workforce − there is clearly more to be done.

Improving digital skills can have a significant impact on individuals as well as the success of our economy as a whole. As we do more and more in our lives online, we need to ensure that all segments of the population are equipped to not only consume but also create digital content. And with the House of Commons Science and Technology committee recently revealing that the digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63bn each year, it is clear more work is needed to address this digital skills gap; it is too great an issue to ignore.

The Barclays Digital Development Index benchmarked ten countries worldwide on their readiness to compete in the digital economy. Crucially, the Index revealed not one, but two digital divides for policymakers to consider. The first is a gender gap in the UK and Sweden, where men exhibit higher levels of assurance in most digital skill categories, whether basic or advanced.

The other interesting divide is between the youngest age cohorts within the workplace. In the UK (and most other markets), new workplace entrants (those aged 16–24) appear less skilled than their older but less digitally ‘native’ counterparts (those aged 25-34). Many may be experienced in digital communication and entertainment, but they stumble when it comes to digital creativity. Despite growing up in a digital world, they face the challenge of learning how to create digital content and not just consume it.

What is especially interesting upon a closer look at the research, is that it is women’s opinion of their own digital skills which is extremely low, particularly within the category of searching and evaluating information online. Of course, it may be that men are more likely to project confidence, whereas women may be more honest about what they know or feel they know. But does this suggest a wider problem?

In short, perhaps…Our findings echo those of a recent study by researchers at Colorado State University, which showed how confidence in ability rather than ability itself was more likely to cause female students to switch out of STEM degrees. And another study by researchers at Washington State University discovered that men tend to overestimate their maths abilities, and even though they’re not as good as they might think, it is this confidence that drives them to continue pursuing STEM degrees.

These points show that it is important that countries focus on boosting both the digital skills and the confidence in those skills of both genders and across all age groups. To stay competitive countries must approach digital education and confidence as a continuum and not something which begins and ends at school. It is encouraging therefore that in our research, the UK scores highly for its digital skills strategy and education, providing a strong platform to develop greater skills with the right focus.

We must build on these efforts and consider how we can boost the uptake of IT subjects amongst female students from an early age. Recent insights from Accenture and ‘Girls who code’ indicate that, without a broad-based strategy aimed at sparking girls’ interest in computing from secondary school through to university, the percentage of women in computing will fall. Educators have a role to play in ensuring digital learning is a core part of the school curriculum and that, more importantly, teachers have the resources required to teach children and that they support individuals and companies by providing access to training and practical support.

Digital skills and confidence in applying our digital knowledge whether in education, work or in our personal lives is crucial to the future success of individuals, businesses and societies. All of us are on a digital journey and enhancing our digital skills will be vital for our continued economic and societal development.

About the author

Ashok Vaswani is the Chief Executive Officer for Barclays UK, covering Personal Banking, Wealth, Entrepreneurs and Business Banking and Barclaycard UK. He is passionate about helping people embrace the new opportunities of the digital revolution with confidence and champions the bank’s initiatives to achieve this.