Blog Type, IPT Blog | February 2017

Bridging the Gap for Women in Technology

Written by Dr Clem Herman, Director eSTEeM (The OU Centre for STEM Pedagogy), Professor Parvati Raghuram, Prof. Geography and Migration, Dr Esther Ruiz-Ben, Research Associate, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, The Open University and Dr Gunjan Sondhi, Research Associate, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, The Open University

In a recent Industry and Parliament Trust (IPT) Breakfast Meeting, Open University researchers shared insights from a new project which explores what the UK can learn from the experience of other countries where women have a much higher participation rate in the IT sector.

The event, hosted on the parliamentary estate included participants from a wide range of industry and campaigning groups, as well as MPs and members of the House of Lords. Over early morning coffee, a lively debate took place about the status of women and girls in the UK IT sector and the impact of this on the digital skills agenda.

One of the issues that many kept coming back to was socialisation, both in the family and at school. We heard that gender differences in attitudes to technology begin very early – even at primary school, and are closely linked to more general issues of gender stereotyping, particularly in relation to STEM subjects. During teenage years, and especially at the crucial time when subjects are chosen for GCSE, girls are often influenced by peer pressure and others (including teachers and parents) resulting in a drop out of key subject areas that might support a potential career in IT.  As the most recent Women and IT Scorecard published by the BCS and Tech Partnership shows, the numbers of women doing higher level study in computer science and IT has continued to drop year on year with women constituting only 17% of graduates in these subjects, a figure reflected in a similar percentage of IT specialists in the workforce who are women.  

In contrast, women make up around 34% of the workforce in the IT sector in India according to 2016 report entitled Making Diversity Work from NASSCOM, India’s leading IT trade association. So what are the reasons for this difference in the participation of women in the IT sector between our two countries?

The Open University project GSM-IT (Gender and Skilled Migration in IT) funded by the Economic and Social Research Council takes this question as a departing point. It compares the experiences of IT workers in India and the UK to see what the UK can learn from the Indian case and explore the insights of migrant women and men who move between both countries.

As the Spring 2017 issue of the Women and IT Scorecard - India shows, the difference in the participation of women in IT between India and the UK begins in schools and universities. For example women represented 46.8% of the postgraduates in IT and computing during the academic year 2014-2015 in India. This high participation of women in IT and computer studies, but also in other technological areas such as engineering in India is a key factor in their entry into the IT sector, where women are mostly graduates with a degree in engineering or technology. However, a striking factor about women in the IT sector in India is that the majority are aged under 30. For young women, the IT sector presents an attractive option both in terms of career prospects and contribution to society. Parents are also encouraging and proud of their children entering the sector, whereas lack of parental support for daughters entering STEM careers has been identified as a barrier in the UK.

So what can we learn from the Indian experience? Education is crucial, especially encouraging girls to continue with STEM subjects at GCSE and beyond. Initiatives in schools such as the WISE Campaign’s ‘People like Me’, can make a big difference in raising awareness of the types of careers and opportunities available in technology sector. As we finished our final cup of coffee before ministers had to rush off for the Brexit debate, we concluded that joining together efforts across all campaigning groups and industry would be a good move. As the Open University research progresses, we hope to be able to provide further insights and practical steps for industry, policy makers and educators alike.