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.

watching a virtual conference on a laptop, zoom call, video call

Being a woman in STEM and working on the frontline during the pandemic

watching a virtual conference on a laptop, zoom call, video callHere, Antonia Purdie, ICT Project Manager at Glide, reflects on her experience around being a woman in STEM and working on the frontline during the pandemic.

How long have you been at Glide for and what is your role?

“I have been at Glide for just over two years now as an ICT Project Manager. Prior to joining Glide, I served in the British Army for six years within the Royal Corp of Signals, where I carried out three tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Would you please be able to talk us through some of the different network projects you managed during lockdown? 

“One of the projects I worked on throughout lockdown is replacing BT fibre with our own dark fibre in Coventry. This has been really successful to date. I have also been working at the University of Worcester on a new managed service project which is quite a big project for Glide, as well as a number of other student accommodation projects across the Midlands.”

How was your experience of working on the frontline to deliver connectivity during the pandemic?

“It was definitely a different experience. It was challenging in terms of there being a lot of delays on site due to COVID-19 restrictions and numerous building works being halted. Once the sites were deemed COVID-secure we were allowed back on site, where we had the two-metre social distancing restrictions to adhere to as well as all of our health and safety documentations that had to be updated. It was also a priority to manage our customers’ expectations with projects being delayed.”

What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

“It hasn’t been as bad as I envisioned it to be, as everyone is aware of what’s been happening and have been very understanding. The delays haven’t really been on our side because we have been waiting for building contractor. Therefore we can only go in and do the install once the building has achieved PC (Project Completed) status. In that respect, the pressure has been taken off of us slightly. I am currently doing some work where we are undertaking a migration from a previous provider to our network. This has been quite challenging with tight timescales and a backlog of work.

How has your past network engineering experience enabled you to work effectively during lockdown?

“I think my past experience of being a Field Engineer working for Thales France out in Afghanistan has helped me work effectively. It is quite restrictive over there and working with the military is obviously very vigilant, with a key focus on ‘expect the unexpected’. You don’t see any family or friends and it is very isolating, so in that respect, it is similar to the restrictions during the height of lockdown. Continuing working through this lockdown has also helped to keep my mind occupied and has certainly helped to keep a sense of normality during this time.”

Do you have any advice for other women pursuing a career in engineering or in the fibre connectivity field?

“Just to follow your dreams, if that is something you’re passionate about, then go for it. There are so many more opportunities now for women within this sector. When I first joined Glide there were not many female project managers, so I was one of the first in some time and now we have numerous females. This isn’t just a man's world, there are now equal opportunities across the board.”

Antonia PurdieAbout Antonia

Antonia Purdie is a Project Manager with over 12 years of experience, working as part of a project delivery team within Glide. Antonia specialises in project end to end delivery of I.T Managed Services for student, residential and business customers across the Midlands region. Antonia is a highly motivated and enthusiastic Project Manager with an international working background, who demonstrates project and leadership skills throughout a highly successful and challenging career. In her free time, Antonia likes to hike with friends and spend quality time with her 6yr old daughter.



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Mary Sansom featured

Inspirational Woman: Mary Sansom | Tech Talent Acquisition Director, QA

Mary SansomMary looks after all things brand and candidate attraction. She’s made it her mission to raise our profile so more people know about all of the great work QA do.

Mary has tonnes of experience in marketing and communications. Her background is in PR – and she’s helped to get QA featured on Sky News, ITV, BBC local news, London Live, Radio1, and in the national papers.

Mary’s been part of the QA team for over 6 years – starting as marketing manager for the QA technical portfolio and progressing to lead marketing and product development for QA’s apprenticeship programmes. Before then, she worked in senior marketing roles at Capita.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m Mary Sansom, Tech Talent Acquisition Director at the UK’s leading technical skills and talent provider, QA. I love my job – I get to play a key part in kick-starting the tech careers of around 5,000 young people every year. I’m responsible for attracting and recruiting technical talent onto the graduate and apprenticeship programmes QA delivers. To date, we’ve delivered these programmes to over 25,000 young people all across the UK.

I grew up in an education system where the IT curriculum comprised mostly of how to use Excel and Word applications. It was neither very engaging nor positioned as an exciting career choice. I’d enjoyed humanities subjects at school and decided to study History at university because I thought it would be a good way to develop some useful all-round skills: critical thinking, writing, analytical skills, for example.

My interest in tech was first sparked post-university. I’d started my first job as a graduate Intern for a software development company. It was a six-month stint in the development team, where I was the only woman in a group of 16. That experience really opened my eyes to what a career in tech involved. I was taught basic coding skills by my colleagues, and it couldn’t have been further from those uninspiring IT lessons at school. It was so interesting – just like learning a new language. On top of that, it was my first taste in the work environment, and it made me realise how much I wanted to move up the career ladder, learn new skills and earn more money.

A lot of the developers I was working with were contractors on a very high day-rate of pay and I was struck by how lucrative a career in tech could have been for me. I was annoyed that this career route, even while I was still relatively young, felt completely closed off to me – like I had missed the boat by not studying it at an earlier age. I felt too far behind my colleagues when it came to my coding skills and felt odd being the only female in the group. I was ultimately steered onto a technical business analysis placement. I did this for a year but, again, felt like the odd one out, so ended up pursuing a placement in the marketing department.

This grounding in marketing and tech has stood me in great stead for what I do today. It’s made me hugely passionate about encouraging people into IT both at an early age, but also showing them that there’s still a chance to reskill or retrain and pivot into a new career later in life. It also made me a strong advocate for diversifying the industry – and getting more women into tech careers.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not at all.

I’m still not 100% sure I know what I want to do, even now! I love what I am doing, but who knows what jobs might be created in the future. Maybe I’ll try my hand at something completely different.

I think we’ll start to see a real shift in the coming years, with more people reskilling into tech-focused careers. If the world is becoming more tech-led, we need it. UK businesses are facing a real tech skills crisis and I think more businesses will be looking into how they can support employees to reskill. QA is already working with a number of organisations both to upskill existing employees, but also to retrain people from completely different departments who want to try something new.

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

Deciding what career path to take was a big challenge. I’m not convinced I really knew the different career options available to me when I left school.

Not only was career advice woefully lacking, but I was very influenced by the paths my parents had taken (both worked in PR and marketing). I can see young people still have this issue today. They are hugely influenced and steered by their parents when it comes to deciding next steps after secondary school. But this is a real issue, given how much the world has changed since their parents – and their parents’ parents were making that decision.

The jobs market is shifting and technology skills that were deemed specialist and niche a few years ago are now critical to business success. Technology is not just a viable career, but it can be one of the most lucrative ones, yet tech courses are often dismissed in favour of more traditional ones. This is especially the case for young women, who tend to be regarded as unusual for choosing a tech career at that age. And yet, we need more women in the industry. The job opportunities on offer in this space are varied, plentiful and well-paid but still only 17% of the tech workforce are female.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

One key achievement for me has been being able to use my position to bring young women closer to careers in tech. Whether that’s through apprenticeships, our Consulting Academy, courses, degrees or even teaming up with amazing organisations and people like STEMettes or Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon.

I’m particularly proud of the work we are doing with STEMettes. We recently started an academy for young women, equipping them with free technical skills and certifications. These are the same courses that adults would go on, taught by industry experts, but it’s completely free. The idea is that together we give girls who would not normally have the chance to see what a career in technology could be like, furthering their technical skills on the way.

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

Surrounding myself with people who share that same drive for success has been so important– at QA it’s a case of standing on the shoulders of giants. We have hundreds of technical experts, operations staff and delivery teams as well as many others all working together to create an exceptional learning experience for people. When you’re in such a driven team, you can’t help but drive for success yourself.

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

As the rate of change in technology surges so do the opportunities for personal growth and development. My advice? Try new things, experiment, stay curious. Have a plan but be reactive to change.

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

It’s getting better and there are stats to back that up, but there are still barriers which exist. There is no quick fix, society on the whole needs to keep up the conversation, do more outreach and work to crush stereotypes by providing the next generation with relatable role models. We can all name a lot of successful men in the tech industry, but it’s hard to name more than a handful of women – and that’s not because women aren’t doing great things in the space!

It’s worth noting that the job is only half-done when we attract women in, the key to success is the long-term sustainability. We need to create environments, communities and culture that retains women, and sets them up for success in tech roles.

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

Continue to listen, evolve and shout about the women successfully carving out tech roles at their companies. We partner with thousands of organisations across the UK and I spend time with many of our customers each month. In my recent interactions, I’ve found that generally the issue of gender parity in tech is being discussed far more openly now, but it’s about long-term sustained growth, embedding culture and encouraging reskilling.

There is currently only 17% 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?

Aside from removing all stereotypes and fears? You’ll probably think this is a cliché but I would put the focus on technical education. I see first-hand the change that learning makes on people’s lives and it’s actually a practical solution to the skills gaps we have in the UK. Women are going to play an incredibly important part in the UK’s sustained economic growth in the next 20 years.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’m being biased, but QA has just released episode three of our #Get2020Vision podcast – and it focuses on Women In Tech, so make sure you check that out. It features Anne-Marie from STEMettes (Who also hosts an amazing podcast called ‘Women Tech Charge’) and Lucy, a developer who came through our Consulting Academy.

Elsewhere, podcast-wise I thoroughly recommend The High Low (not strictly about tech careers, but I love it!). I dip in and out of TED Talks and ‘Note to Self’ is also really great.

I’m a bit of a book worm, but I tend to read books that take my mind off work. If there was one book I would recommend, it would be Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez.

There are a host of meet-ups for women in tech now, so make sure you seek those out!  Also, just speak to other women in the industry - make use of social media, I’m seeing more and more groups for technical females on LinkedIn, for example.

encouraging girls in to tech, STEM featured

More than 75% of young women interested in a career in STEM are put off by gender barriers

encouraging girls in to tech, STEM featuredIn light of recent research conducted by RWB, QA and Stemettes have launched a series of free STEM Certification Academies to target gender barriers and give young women the skills and qualifications they need for a career in the tech sector.

The research revealed that 53% of young women wish to pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), however unfortunately 78% of them are put off by the gender barriers that currently exist in the sector.

Furthermore, 37% of women believe that they would not have access to the same opportunities as male colleagues, and nearly a third admitted that they do not feel comfortable in a male dominated environment.

To tackle these statistics, QA has joined forces with Stemettes, a social enterprise which exists to encourage girls aged 5-25 to pursue a STEM career. The 'Stemettes Certification Academy'  3-day training course will offer free facilities, technology skills training and certifications to ten young women (aged 16-20) who aspire to work in the technology industry. It will be led by QA's world-class qualified trainers and the successful course completes will gain a globally recognised ICAgile qualification. The initial pilot programme will take place at QA’s flagship training centre in St Katherine’s Dock, starting on 23rdOctober 2019.

Reflecting on the findings of the research, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, CEO & Co-founder, Stemettes, said: “The research shows that there is an aspiration amongst young women to pursue technology and other STEM careers. However, there are still perceived to be real barriers that are limiting UK female potential – one of these is a lack of understanding – which must be addressed. This half-term ‘The Stemettes Certification Academy’ is a first important milestone in us achieving our organisational ambitions, which we’ll be widely publishing next year – to move the dial across the UK for young women and their communities, especially in Agile, Cyber and Coding skills.”

Paul Geddes, CEO, QA has also commented, saying:  “Given the skills gap across the STEM sector, and the dire shortfall of women in UK STEM roles, this is an important partnership with Stemettes, for us to jointly further bridge the technology skills gap. Working with our world-class trainers on ‘The Stemettes Certification Academy’, the women will be sufficiently upskilled in the latest Agile practices, with a view to supporting their technology career aspirations. Together with Stemettes, we are confident that this programme will be the first of many.”

The initial pilot course will comprise of ten aspiring STEM students, with QA and Stemettes in discussions on future technology skills initiatives across Cyber, Agile and Coding in 2020 and beyond.