Women working with computer for design and coding program

How apprenticeships could be the solution to the gender gap in technology

Women working with computer for design and coding program

Article by Katie Nykanen, Chief Technology Officer, QA Limited

“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 above the age of 40 would have repeatedly had reinforced throughout our childhoods. But worryingly, STEM – and particularly technology – continue to lag behind many industries when it comes to female representation. Just 17% of UK tech jobs are held by women. 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 UK by STEM Subject (Source: STEM Women)

Above: Female Graduates in 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 ever-increasing number of roles that will require these skills. So what can be done to get more women and girls into STEM, and particularly into technology?

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. Roberta and Rosie are just two examples.

Roberta is an IT Compliance Officer for the Financial Times that 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 & 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.”

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 schools 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.”

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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Katie Nykanen

Inspirational Woman: Katie Nykanen | Chief Technology Officer, QA

Katie NykanenI‘m currently group Chief Technology Officer at QA, a UK-based tech skills and talent provider.

We specialise in technologies such as agile product development, cybersecurity, cloud, and DevOps to businesses in the private and public sectors. A huge part of our mission is helping businesses across the country put learning at the heart of what they do and enabling people to access much needed technology skills. We have worked with many different types of businesses to achieve this, such as Nationwide on its Technology Development Programme. We helped train up bright candidates and deployed them at Nationwide to help build the organisation’s digital capability. We have also worked specifically to improve diversity and encourage women into Cyber Software Development roles by working with the UK Government. Most recently, QA won a government contract to provide digital skills bootcamps for those who are unemployed, or need to retrain, with the aim of giving them the tech and digital skills required to gain employment in well-paid tech roles.

As CTO, I am responsible for both the systems and platforms QA uses to provide an outstanding learning experience, as well as ensuring excellence across operations, sales and marketing and back-office business systems.

Prior to joining QA in September 2021, I worked at Adstream for a decade, after several years with Nokia Networks and Mobile phones.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

A career in tech was not something that I had carefully sat down and mapped out from an early age. In fact, I find that planning a career does not always work; it is more about being open to new opportunities, realising if what you can learn in a role has stalled and finding new things that excite you. I have always been ambitious and wanted to progress and still now I look to peers and seniors to mentor and advise on options, as well as trying to mentor others by sharing experiences and connections.

Today more than ever, career goals are about much more than quick progression. More people want to align their values with the businesses they work for, maintain a work/life balance, and ensure they are doing work they can be proud of. These goals are what motivated me to join QA, an organisation committed to education and ensuring technological skills are accessible to all.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

In all honesty, I do not think I have faced any negative experiences in the industry or felt I missed opportunities because of being a woman in a male dominated industry. In general, I have worked hard and have been rewarded accordingly and frequently worked with smart, capable women as well as supportive men who have not treated me any differently.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges, has been moving the thinking at senior levels in organisations from technology being a service function to being a critical enabler of the business. Often businesses pay lip service to rapid digital transformation without fully understanding the amount of business change needed to really achieve the benefits of a technology project. Technology needs a seat at the top table of every business helping bring the whole business along on the journey.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Hard work and determination! Specifically, though, my overall approach is to look for places where technology can bring significant business benefits through driving efficiency or growing revenue rather than being seen as a cost centre. This is the best way to build strong relationships with the business and ensure your tech function becomes pivotal in the business.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

My biggest tip would be to look at where Technology can benefit the business you work in, you will be successful if you focus on driving real world efficiencies, creating new, rewarding experiences, and changing business for the better.

I would encourage people to constantly think about what inspires and drives them and use this as motivation to excel. 

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

The perceptions about what a technology career consists of is a part of what is deterring women away from careers in tech. To attract more women and girls into tech, whether they are young children, graduates, mature learners, we need to break the stigma that careers in tech are quite dull and geeky. For instance, many might assume that roles in tech require many solitary hours in front of a screen when there is far more interaction and connection. It is also important to note that there is a need for tech in every industry today. Hospitality businesses now hugely rely on technology for bookings, staff scheduling and order management. The opportunities to bring change into industries that are not classically tech-led can be very rewarding.

Many also believe that they do not have the right skills for a role in tech. Research we conducted revealed that 77% of young people still mistakenly believe that an aptitude for maths and science is essential for working in tech but this just is not the case. There are so many transferable skills that will kick-start your career in tech, it is about making the jump.

At QA, we recognise the immense value a more diverse workforce brings to a business so are incredibly determined to encourage this within our own business and on the programmes that we recruit learners into.

What do you think companies can do to support the careers of women working in technology?

In the same way as driving diversity of social class, ethnicity, and ability in your teams, it will often require focussed effort to grow the number of women in your team. Businesses need to actively adapt their recruitment strategies to reach more women and consider their unique needs. Advertise the exciting parts of the roles and really bring the position to life, focussing on the value applicants can bring to a business. Providing case studies or ‘days-in-the-life’ examples can be a terrific way to illustrate how the job is not just sat at a desk coding all day.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

The education system. Children and young people are not exposed to technology enough, regardless of gender. There is no understanding of young people through the education system as to how crucial technology is in every walk of life.

Schools need to be teaching far more from an early age and until this changes, we will still have to convince people from more varied backgrounds to look at careers in Technology later in life.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I like to attend networking events with other CIOs, CTOs and often now CDOs, CPOs and CSOs. I find it reassuring to speak with those who face similar challenges to me and to learn from the different ways others have found of overcoming them. It has been frustrating not being able to do this face to face, and I look forward to being able to meet people in these and in the bigger tech conferences very soon.

I like to go running and walking and while I do that I really enjoy listening to the ‘High Performance podcast’ which invites people from Business, Sport, the Arts and Media to talk about their experiences. It is great to think about how to relate learnings from people in such a wide range of industries to my own life both professionally and personally.