Why empowering women in STEM is key to the UK’s digital future

Portrait of four successful women in tech, women in STEM

The UK’s digital future is not just about technology, but people, says Victoria Knight. She explains why it is so important to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to take on tech careers

The UK is currently facing a significant digital skills divide. In cyber alone, approximately half of businesses are lacking the skill sets needed to protect against threats. This stands in the way of achieving important initiatives, such as the government’s levelling up agenda, which is heavily focused on digital development in the North West.

Diversity and a skilled workforce go hand in hand: we cannot address one without the other. Closing the digital skills gap is dependent on empowering women and girls of all backgrounds to enter into – and stay in – STEM careers.

But fostering the skill sets needed to keep up with a technology market that’s growing exponentially is incredibly challenging, especially when these skills are not nurtured and encouraged from an early stage.

We need to redouble our efforts to break down barriers that prevent people from diverse backgrounds from taking on tech careers. The current statistics are shocking – only 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women. Importantly, it’s too simple to focus solely on gender differences; we also need to look at intersectionality and social mobility.

While there are schemes and organisations dedicated to helping young women and girls navigate or transition to STEM subjects and careers, more needs to be done – and it needs to happen fast. A holistic approach is required, involving governments, education bodies and private sector businesses coming together to address the problem.

The urgent need for diversity in tech

Why is AI facial recognition technology failing to identify black women accurately? The very bedrock of algorithms have bias uploaded in them – and this is because software development teams lack equal representation on both a racial and gender equity level. The same goes in other fields too, from healthcare technology to recruitment.

In light of this, a well-known study on facial recognition bias was conducted in 2018 to appraise three gender classification algorithms. The study showed that all three algorithms had error rates of 34% for darker skinned females compared to lighter skinned males.

The results prompted some tech organisations to take steps to modify testing cohorts and improve data collection to reduce bias. However, we still need more diverse talent at top technology companies to reduce these errors and impacts on wider society.

Opening doors and breaking down barriers

Diverse teams enable new ways of problem solving and can open doors for future generations of talent. We don’t have to look far for examples of this throughout history.

When Sally Ride became the first woman in space for a short flight in 1983, NASA’s medical staff realised they had never considered menstruation in space. Engineers had to examine how toilets and hygiene could be improved, meaning one woman’s period benefitted a whole generation of astronauts.

Another example is Margaret Hamilton, NASA’s ex-Director of Apollo Flight Computer Programming, who developed a unique asynchronous flight software that allowed the safe landing on the moon of the Apollo 11 shuttle after alerts overrode the system. In fact, she even coined the term ‘software engineering ‘and is credited with revolutionising space flight engineering as well as making the 1969 moon landing a reality.

Additionally, Valerie Bath, the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, went on to invent the Laserphaco Probe to help make the removal of cataracts less invasive and risky for patients globally. This was after discovering African Americans were eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. Her research meant that racial biases were accounted for in eye health treatments, revolutionising the healthcare of patients worldwide.

Although we still have a lot of work to do, these women – alongside many others not mentioned here – paved the way for technological advancements that still impact society positively to this day.

Facilitating skills development

Encouraging women into STEM starts with education and play at a very early age. The curriculum in the UK hasn’t changed for decades and it’s hindering progress in closing the skills gap. Teaching STEM subjects is about more than focusing on ‘hard skills’, but also how someone interacts with technology and solves problems.

At the same time, the responsibility lies with organisations. Recruiting female talent should not be a tick-box exercise for businesses, but a staple of any hiring process. Part of this is making STEM jobs more attractive to people from all backgrounds, which involves shifting language in advertisements, rethinking marketing strategies and making learning opportunities, such as apprenticeships, available to a wider demographic. It also means helping women in leadership positions become role models – key for disassembling stereotypes and improving social mobility.

Creating inclusive workplace cultures is essential for retaining diverse digital talent. As an

industry, there’s a long way to go to getting this right. At BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, we are dedicated to ensuring we’re offering equal and fair opportunities – and this is as much about where we work, as it is how we work.

Walking the walk

The UK’s digital future is not just about technology, but people. To narrow the widening skills gap, it is imperative that we provide more choice to women and girls throughout their careers.

That’s why BAE Systems Digital Intelligence holds regular digital and cyber courses to encourage people at all stages of their careers to learn new skills. For example, our partnership with Mindweaver is all about breaking down ethical and gender barriers to technical roles, offering them the opportunity to participate in a 16-week bootcamp coding course. We also partner with Tech Returners to offer courses for those who want to transition to careers in technology.

In addition to these initiatives, we also run seminars and events focused on increasing diversity within STEM. These are regularly hosted throughout the year, of which dates can be found on our dedicated events page.

About the author

Images from the We Are Tech 100 Awards, QE II Centre London 23Jan2020Victoria Knight is the Strategic Campaigns Director for BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, which helps nations, governments and businesses around the world defend themselves against cyber crime.

With over 20 year experience in the tech sector across strategic development, leadership, digital skills growth, diversity and inclusion, Victoria is passionate about our digital & cyber workforce becoming more reflective of society and advocating the exciting opportunities it has to offer.  She is an active STEM Ambassador and member of Greater Manchester’s Cyber Advisory Group.

female leader, women leading the way featured

Empower your female workforce and you’ll empower your future

female leader, women leading the way

Article by Sally-Anne Skinner, Chief Revenue Officer at Ogi

There was a unifiable hope that in 2021, women working together wouldn’t conjure up as much negativity as it does sometimes.

It would be wonderful to think that the concept of having a strong female workforce was no more extraordinary than that of having a male one, that having a female CEO was as normal as their male counterpart, yet even the briefest of searches on these topics has proven that this just isn’t the case, especially in the technology field.

The idea that women who work together must be rivals is trivial — there’s room for all of us (despite what statistics might indicate) and at Ogi, we have some of the best and brightest female minds working in fields they were told they would never be able to succeed in. Over time, they and all had to learn that the best way to feel empowered is to empower those around you. In this post, we will examine five ways you can empower your female workforce to be the best they could ever be.

Amplify the voices of your female workforce

One of the most important parts of professional development is making sure you have the confidence in what you do, however, for those who are constantly let down, pushed aside and undermined, this confidence can be quickly knocked down. Empowering our workforce, specifically our female workforce means we need to amplify the voices of those who may be silenced.

It’s so important to remember that this silencing isn’t always done out of malice, but sometimes out of unrecognised stigma. Deloitte’s Women in the Boardroom research stated that, in a board meeting of 100 people, only 15 of these will be women. In a room of 10 that means not even 2 would be women.

The conclusion here is that if you’re in a meeting where another woman is present, amplify each other - this can be as simple as backing one another’s opinions. Start a conversation where the two of you are the main participants, and allow both opinions to be heard, with respect, even if you’re on opposing sides of the conversation.

The simple act of speaking up isn’t enough, as a team it is our job to make sure voices are heard - you never know where, or who your next big idea will come from.

Support personal and professional development

The better connected your workforce the better they become within themselves. One of the most important things we can do to help empower our female workforce is to make sure we’re giving them the opportunities to connect with other people who can help them grow personally and professionally.

By making these introductions we can allow our workforce to build their own knowledge and resource pool, inspiring them, and hopefully those around them,  to then become a mentor for further members of the workforce later down the line.

What we want and need to avoid is the feeling of being undervalued, undermined and overlooked - and by supporting our workforce in ways THEY want and THEY need, we’re making sure their voices are heard, their development is valued and they as an individual are a key component of our business growth.

Close the pay gap

Ah yes, the one nugget of a conversation everyone wants to shy away from - we get it, talking about money is uncomfortable, but it’s also so important. Openness around salaries is integral to understanding the differences between pay, and finally being able to close the pay gap.

In industries where your salary is negotiable due to experience, etc. many people still do not feel confident enough to negotiate their wage, simply because they do not know their own worth. The easiest way to avoid this minefield is to allow open and honest conversations about salary, and that includes everyone.

Accept and embrace individuality and creativity

One of the most obvious things to be said is to make sure that there is an understanding that not every member of your workforce is the same. Almost all of us understand the nuances and gender bias’ and it’s our job as a collective to embrace the individuality of our employees.

Simply put: Do not expect your female workforce to adhere to stereotypical constructs of femininity and female employment. If her ambition is to get to the top, putting blockers in her way because “that’s not ladylike” will inevitably end up with her resignation. Allow your workforce to grow, in their way, with the help they need, and your workforce will thrive, regardless of their gender identity.

Food for thought

I think it’s always important to remember that the culture in which an employee grows will help mould them, both professionally and personally. If you have a culture in which everyone thrives, women and men alike, you will be moulding a strong and empowered workforce. But it’s important to take the steps needed to make sure your female workforce is on board.

As a final note, a TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) per say - empowering your female workforce is not as difficult as it seems, equal pay, equal opportunities and equal respect is all they’re asking for. Amplify their voices when they do something out of the box, making sure there are role models of every variety in your business will ALWAYS ensure your employees have someone to look up too.

Finally, it is important to establish these goals and recognise there will still be challenges ahead to face - it’s how you face them which will define you.

Sally-Anne SkinnerAbout the author

Sally-Anne is the Chief Revenue Officer at Ogi (previously Spectrum Internet) and has spent the last 23 years working in a variety of leadership roles in the residential telecoms sector, for brands including Sky, ntl, and Centrica.

Sally-Anne has extensive people management experience, having run large sales teams, and developed head office management structures to deliver against business KPIs.

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