woman and man looking at a computer screen with coding, carving a career in tech, digital exclusion

Digital exclusion remains a growing issue all around the world and the pandemic has brought the problem into even sharper focus.

The past year has demonstrated how a lack of digital skills or connectivity can create an additional layer of social exclusion and exacerbate social and economic problems for communities.

Last month, local councils in the UK announced a collaboration to build a stronger data picture of digital exclusion in their areas, as part of the CCIN Policy Lab Understanding the Digital Divide project. But it’s not just the responsibility of the public sector to address the issue of digital exclusion.

Technology companies have a large role to play in helping to upskill communities and equip them with the ability to be successful in their digital lives. This will also be crucial for addressing the widening STEM skills gap, which is affecting society and industry more broadly. According to a new report from the Institute of Engineering and Technology, 93% of engineering firms do not have the right skills to meet 2050 climate targets.

Here, WeAreTechWomen speak to Sarah Atkinson, director, corporate social responsibility at global software company, Micro Focus, on the role of technology companies in helping to upskill communities and eliminate digital exclusion.

Can you provide us with a brief overview of your career and how you got into running CSR programmes?

I’m a former news journalist, with over 20 years of experience with organisations such as Cisco, BEA and most recently, ten years as Vice President, Communications & Social Responsibility at CA Technologies. Purpose has always been important to me and around 2008, I felt that I wanted to make more of a difference, not just in terms of the workplace but more broadly regarding inclusion at all levels.

I took on my first non-exec role at techUK (a member organisation representing the IT industry in government on topics ranging from economic policy to skills and diversity). Here, I worked closely with the government on various digital skills and I&D initiatives, such as Gender Pay Gap reporting, Returners Programs. I was a founding supporter of the WISE Campaign’s People Like Me Digital, which aims to influence 200,000 11-15-year-old girls to consider a career in STEM. I also had an amazing opportunity to collaborate with Girlguiding to help incorporate STEM subjects into their badges and attended Camp CEO as a role model for Girl Guides.

I joined Micro Focus in 2019 to establish and lead their CSR program globally. Today, I am also a board director at the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Chair of the Nominations & Governance Committee and a member of its Skills, Education & Employment Advisory Panel as well as the LEP’s I&D Champion. I am also a long-standing member of techUK’s Skills & Diversity Council and a trustee at Berkshire Youth, a social enterprise that works to support, empower and inspire young people.

Why is addressing the problem of digital exclusion so important?

Today every business is a digital business. As more and more services move online as digital transformation becomes more pervasive, it is important that nobody is left behind. Industry must continue to play a key role in helping to address this issue, as digital exclusion can also widen inequalities on many levels, including health, social and economic mobility. It spans all aspects of society – whether it’s a school child not being about to submit homework or take part in online lessons. Or those in the community not having the right skills to access important government services, or missing out on competitive energy tariffs. It can impact in many ways.

How has the last year exacerbated the issue of digital exclusion?

Overnight our lives went digital – schooling, socialising, shopping , staying in touch with each other and working from home (where possible) meant that those who did not have access whether broadband, devices or the skills were marginalised even further. We also changed our approach as we quickly transitioned from delivering in person workshops at schools to virtual workshops, where employees were able to connect with hundreds of students in the classroom virtually.

What is the role of technology companies in helping upskill communities and eliminating digital exclusion?

Tech firms can and do play a major role in helping, on many levels.  The Micro Focus INSPIRE program is focused on helping equip communities with the right skills to be successful in their digital lives.  Every employee has four days a year to volunteer and through a number of our non-profit/charity partnerships we have been able to help multiple communities around the world. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, volunteers in Bulgaria and Italy used their volunteering days to help upskills teachers to get online to deliver lessons.

What are the specific steps technology companies can take to address this issue?

Engaging your employees is a great first step. Tapping into the talent and passion you have in your organisation can provide you with an army of volunteers and role models – whatever the size of your business. Secondly, empowering and enable employees to take time in work hours to volunteer. And thirdly, supporting educational organisations/non-profits/charities who are working in this space.

What skills do we need to equip people with to help them be more successful in their digital futures? How does this relate to closing the widening STEM skills gap?

Today every job requires some level of digital skills. Therefore, it’s important to help young people understand that whatever career choices they make, digital skills will be required along the way. In terms of the skills gap, yes there remains a chronic STEM skills shortage in the UK. While improvements are being made, we still have a long way to go.  The issue must be addressed from the classroom to the boardroom – over coming stereotypes, biases and providing more role models as a starting point.  Engaging young people to study STEM subjects and pursue jobs in tech is important. However, we cannot rely solely on the next generation to solve the problem. Reskilling existing workforces for the jobs of tomorrow is critical, as many low-digitally-skilled workers will be impacted by automation and AI, leaving them without the right skills to be successful in the future.

Employers can play a key role in helping to keep their workforce up to date through investments in ongoing learning and development, amongst other things. Attracting a diverse pool of talent also remains an issue. Tech needs talent from all backgrounds. Research has shown time and time again, that to drive innovation we need diverse thinking, ideas and problem solving.  Let’s not forget it is also about equality and fairness. Not all talent gets the same opportunity so we need to help create opportunities for all but also then ensure we have inclusive environments where all talent can thrive.

Sarah AtkinsonAbout Sarah

An experienced leader and former news journalist, Sarah Atkinson has over 20 years of experience in multinational organizations including Cisco, 3Com and most recently spent ten years as Vice President, Communications & Social Responsibility, EMEA at CA Technologies. A member of the company’s leadership team, she also led Create Tomorrow, a program designed to inspire and excite young people, particularly girls, about careers in STEM, as well as the company’s Diversity & Inclusion strategy in EMEA.

From 2015 to 2018, she served on the main board of techUK, a non-profit representing the companies and technologies that are defining today, the world that we will live in tomorrow.

Today, she is the Vice Chair of the Diversity & Skills Council at techUK and is actively involved in several Diversity & Inclusion programs including Gender Pay Gap reporting, Returners Programs and is a founding supporter of the WISE Campaign’s People Like Me Digital which aims to influence 200,000 11-15-year-old girls in the UK to consider a career in STEM. In 2018, she also worked with Girlguiding to incorporate STEM into their badges and attended 2018 Camp CEO as a role model for Girl Guides.

She was listed in Cranfield University’s School of Management 100 Women to Watch report – a supplement to the Female FTSE Board Report 2018 and in the Computer Weekly 100 Most Influential Women in Technology in 2017 & 2018.

A regular commentator on STEM, equality and inclusion topics, she has appeared on BBC News, BBC World and in various publications.