Encouraging women in digital and IT across education systems and through apprenticeships

Businesses are facing crucial digital skills gaps. A challenge intensified by a lack of women choosing tech careers – essentially halving the size of the skills pool to help solve the problem.

There is a particular gender imbalance for girls and women leaving secondary school and seeking higher education. 27% of women seek higher education in technology compared to 62% of men and, only 3% of women cited technology as their first choice when leaving secondary school for higher education.[1]

Before, during and after this stage in a girl’s education: education systems, employers, different workforce, and apprenticeships can encourage women to choose tech careers.

Estio held a roundtable to discuss how education systems, employers, different workforce, and apprenticeships can encourage women to choose tech careers. With guests Dr Claire Thorne – Co-CEO for Tech She Can, Annette Allmark – Director of Learning and Development for BCS and Cassandra MacDonald – Estio’s Managing Director and BPP’s Dean of School of Technology.

Who is responsible for inspiring change in education systems?

Claire tells us that “how and where” is key to answering this question. Tech She Can focus on this by “inspiring girls, teachers, parents with free resources and real-life role models in the classroom”. So that girls “see and become curious about the technology they use every day, think about the roles behind them and then make visible the pathways into those roles.”

In terms of who is responsible for inspiring change in education systems, Claire tells us about Tech We Can, their free schools’ program that focuses on “boys and girls being educated and inspired about tech roles together” in the early stages of their education before stereotypes set in. Claire explains that “men are half of the solution” and “these boys will grow to be men who will be future employees, colleagues, employers, and peers.” So, when girls and boys work together, they can inspire change in education systems.

But the responsibility doesn’t only sit with education systems. Nor does it sit with only “the tech sector,” says Claire, “it’s across all organisations that have tech roles sitting within them” continues Claire. She explains that these organisations understand this and “the UK skills gap could be helped if we had the same number of women in tech careers as men”.

Therefore, there’s a responsibility for public sector, private sector, third sector and charitable organisations to come together and encourage women to choose tech careers.

How do vocational pathways encourage women in tech careers compared to academic pathways?

After girls and women leave secondary school and seek higher education encouraging women must continue to increase women in tech careers.

Annette breaks down how vocational pathways encourages everyone to seek higher education. Telling us that “vocational pathways are the opportunity to work alongside people.” From T-levels, that expose individuals to placements to the next step of an apprenticeship, “there’s nothing richer than learning in a structured way but learning on the job and applying those skills straight away” says Annette, further adding that, comparably “it’s an experience that is going to be incredibly broad instead of working in a classroom.”

Cassandra emphasises that on a vocational pathway, such as an apprenticeship program, you’re more likely to be surrounded by “women role models”. Whether they’re in the same tech role or not, Cassandra highlights that being around other women in the workplace will “build confidence”. Confidence that encourages women to progress in their apprenticeships, their careers, all the while, inspiring their peers. Despite, the benefits that vocational pathways have in encouraging everyone to seek higher education and have a future career, Claire points that it’s “not vocational vs academic” as there could be moments in an individual’s life to do “both but at different times”. These times could be “early career stages, as a pivoter and returning to work”. Which is why “there needs to be as many pathways as possible, visibly and clearly signposted” says Claire, so that women have all the options to choose a career path that supports them best and at these different times.

How is the apprenticeship space addressing this encouragement?

The apprenticeship space is encouraging everyone to seek higher education because apprenticeship providers work closely with schools, apprentices, and employers.

Cassandra explains that Estio’s Recruitment Team source people to develop their careers through tech apprenticeships. They go directly to “career events, schools, particularly targeting all girls’ schools’ to talk about the opportunities available for girls and boys.”

“Apprenticeships should be a choice, if it’s the right choice for the individual,” says Annette, adding, “better than ever before apprenticeships are being championed”. Which Annette highlights is shown by the success stories of different apprentices during events like “National Apprenticeship Week”, at award ceremonies like “National Apprenticeship Awards, BCS IT and Digital Apprenticeship Awards that also has a t-level category”.

These celebrations present role models for individuals and show apprenticeships to not only be, accessible to anyone but achievable by anyone. But for these celebrations to be most effective, Annette highlights that “apprenticeships need to be recognised in schools as a fabulous choice for individuals” because currently, they’re not recognised enough.

Claire brings to light that “better use of apprenticeship funding and making apprenticeship pathways more visible” will help apprenticeships to become more recognised.

Tech She Can have women-friendly apprenticeships, with mainly women cohorts that are fully funded by the levy. In 2022, they did a pilot to their strategic partners (large organisations) who have lots of surplus levy and asked them if they’d donate their surplus levy to some of Tech She Cans charity and SME members with none eligible levy. Within weeks over £1 million was donated which was all redirected to “fully fund 75 tech apprentices, mostly women, in organisations that otherwise, wouldn’t have access to that talent” states Claire. Tech She Can have found that organisations who have the surplus levy are willing to do this more if there was a formal mechanism in place.

Thereby, Claire emphasises that “there is a role for government to play, where as well as having the levy, within that there’s an opt out, ‘ring-fence pot’ where unless organisations say no, this is to specifically fund tech talent for those that otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.”

What plans does the apprenticeship space have to address this encouragement?

Every business has the goal to ultimately, build a product offering that is accessible to everyone. But businesses can’t do this unless they have a diverse employee pipeline. Which is why the apprenticeship space must continually create ways for apprenticeships to be accessible to women, so that in turn, their skills are accessible to businesses.

To increase the diverse pipeline and support those who are already in the profession to progress, Annette tells us how BCS are working on an initiative called “a force for good”.  The initiative aims to encourage apprentices to give back, whether that’s going “back into schools to promote apprenticeships or getting involved in the development and improvement of digital apprenticeships.” Former apprentices will share their stories to inspire the futures of girls and boys career paths.

Cassandra points out that people care about more than their income such as “giving back and feeling like making a difference”.  So, with initiatives like ‘a force for good’ individuals can “gain more fulfilment in their role which could help to retain them” and allow businesses to retain critical skills.

How are digital and IT apprenticeships inclusive to everyone?

Digital and IT apprenticeships and all apprenticeships are designed to build individuals confidence in the workplace so that apprentices are encouraged to progress in their roles. How inclusive these apprenticeships are is a responsibility of apprenticeship providers and their employers working together.

Annette states that “apprenticeship programs bring people into the workplace” giving women and men the opportunity to directly progress in their role. The way in which apprentices will progress is through their employer support. Cassandra highlights that “training providers need to work closely with their employers” to give apprentices the support they need. Estio and BPP have a learning support team that Cassandra ensures “are there for the apprentices, however old they are, whatever their situation is,” so that support is accessible. To support the line managers responsible for apprentices, BCS have introduced a ‘line managers toolkit’ to better guide and support apprentices.

Diversity is about understanding individuals, then applying that understanding to support them and their individual needs. The more collaboration we have across education systems, employers, different workforce, and apprenticeships, the more we’ll understand individual girls and women’s needs to become interested in tech, choose tech careers, and see more women in tech roles. Tech roles that plug digital skills gaps for businesses across all sectors and sizes.

We offer 16 different digital & IT apprenticeship courses from core level 3 to a degree level 7. Applicable to school leavers, career developers and career changes so that together, women and men will build and develop digital skills for future businesses.

Learn more – estio.co.uk/courses


[1] Techshecan.org – About Us

Amy Smith

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