Are women the solution to the software skill shortage?

In recent years software development has become one of the hottest IT fields to work in and the number of software developers in the UK now stands at more than 247,000. Both the private sector and the public sector have been caught up in digital fever as they strive to meet the expectations of increasingly digitally savvy customers and drive organisational efficiencies. With continued competition amongst businesses and ongoing investment from the UK government in public sector digital services, demand for skilled software developers will only increase.

This is a trend which Neil Toms, Digital Technology Specialist, Networkers is already seeing:

“Technologists are constantly in high demand and organisations across both the public and private sectors are particularly in need of Software Engineers, Front End Developers and Architects.”

The problem is that there is already a shortage of developers in the UK and with the UK’s application economy projected to increase to £30.8bn in 2025 from just £2.9bn in 2013; the skills gap will become even more evident. So where are organisations going to find these software developers?

One solution is to maximise the potential of the existing UK workforce by increasing diversity. In an industry which is overwhelmingly dominated by men, greater encouragement of women into IT is a major strand in this solution. But why aren’t more women choosing a career in software development? And what can the industry do to increase the number of women choosing it as a profession?

Lack of role models

Although historically there have been examples of women in IT like Ada Lovelace (who is considered to have written instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s), generally IT developments and professions have been led and dominated by men. Consider the influence of well-known male role models in the digital space such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.  With fewer examples of success stories of women in development, young girls may not recognise it as a career choice for them.

Fortunately this trend is starting to be bucked. Kathryn Parsons, British tech entrepreneur and co-founder and co-CEO of Decoded, is one example of a modern female role model in IT. Decoded is a London based tech start-up which offers programs such as ‘Code in a day’ and ‘Hacker in a day’ which aim to increase digital literacy. Other examples include Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, who champions the need for more women in leadership positions within tech firms, and Marissa Mayer - the first female Software Engineer at Google and now president and CEO of Yahoo. The more role models women have the more likely they are to consider development as a profession of choice.

Parental support & changing perceptions

When we’re deciding what we want to be when we’re ‘older’, our parents can have a strong influence on the careers we choose. They can suggest to us from a young age which professions they aspire for us to go into and educate us about the status and prospects different jobs might offer. In a relatively young industry, how many parents would advise their children to seek a career in software development? And would they give the same guidance to their sons and daughters?
It seems the answer is not very many. Currently, in the UK the number of girls taking computing as an A level in 2016 is worryingly low and only 10% of students are girls. Whilst this is a slight improvement from last year (where only 8.5% of exam takers were female), there is still a long way to go before the levels are balanced.

The good news is that not for profit organisations such as ‘Code First: Girls’ are helping to bridge the development skills gap and change perceptions of development. They support young and working age women to develop their technical coding and programming skills, they connect women to a community of companies that can support them, and work collaboratively with companies to build up and develop the talent in their organisation without missing out on talented females in the process.

As more organisations recognise the value a more diverse workforce can bring, without discriminating against men, employers are looking to actively recruit female developers. Natalie Ayres, Development Recruitment Consultant, Networkers shares her insight:

“Women can make great developers, just like men can, so long as they possess the attributes of a natural developer – a logical mind, the ability to problem solve and good team work and communication skills. It’s not about choosing to hire a woman instead of a man; it is about recognising the benefits of a diverse team. I often hear from employers that a more diverse development team can improve communication flow and teamwork.”

Gender pay gap

According to a recent survey of developers by Stack Overflow (2016), male developers over the age of 30 earn on average $20,000 more than their female counterparts in the US. This colossal gap may be a reason why some women are put off becoming software developers. This is despite the high salaries on offer to women in this field. According to Forbes’ ‘top 25 best paying jobs for women right now’, development remains amongst the best paying jobs for women in the US, with a median annual salary of $73,580.

If employers can address the gender pay gap and promote the opportunities within development, more women could be encouraged into this profession.

Future outlook

If the gender pay gap can be quashed, if more female role models can come forward and share their story, and if young people can be offered better career advice on entering into the IT profession, then we can expect more women developers in the future. It is important to say that employers, educational institutions and the government are already making strides towards increasing diversity within technology fields. It will however take time before such initiatives have a long-term impact and this is just one answer to combatting the skills gap. In the meantime, everyone within the industry has a responsibility to promote the benefits of a career in development and other skills short disciplines to ensure we have the skills we need for the future.

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