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.