RGU’s new Head of Computing Science and Digital Media on STEM, gender imbalance and the recruitment market

We all know the stats around STEM and gender imbalance and we’re constantly hearing ideas to solve it, however, we have to be honest and admit that the skills shortages (irrespective of gender) are such that there is no short-term solution.  The problem in this country is deep-rooted and we need a fundamental change to the way society thinks about STEM and the importance of both girls and boys studying its subjects.
We know there needs to be more investment in schools for STEM projects and teaching Computer Science (CS). Programming or coding is a fundamental skill in CS and it is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.  Programming is a very creative activity that requires logical thinking, concentration, precision and problem-solving. Young children should be given opportunities to learn coding and this naturally will draw more girls into studying CS.
I think that educating parents is very important too. Children need to have encouragement from both parents and teachers in order to choose STEM subjects.

That said, teaching is not an easy profession and very few STEM graduates choose to go into it. Having a CS education route may help. At present, students have to finish first their BSc degree and after that do the teaching qualification. Integrated CS and pedagogic courses could be a solution to get more students qualified as teachers.

Some people believe that part of the problem is an unconscious sexism in industry and recruitment. I don’t think this is necessarily the case.  In 2000-01 I wanted to work in industry and applied for several jobs. The recruitment companies in London are very aware of the need to encourage female applicants, but in truth there are such skill shortages in many digital disciplines that they really don’t care what your gender/background/ethnicity/religion etc. are – they just want talented people. 

I had three job offers and in one of those companies I’d have been the only woman in the team. Instead, I went to a bigger company where there were more women.  This is a chicken and egg situation – if there are no, or few, women in a company then perhaps some women will not feel comfortable about going to work there, thus exacerbating the problem.

Coming from Eastern Europe, I do notice a difference in this country.  In the summer I visited a College in Malaysia and there most lecturers in computing science are female.  Other countries (Mexico, Finland, Estonia, etc.) are similar, whereas in the UK I’ve been in the minority in all the university departments in which I’ve worked.  In Eastern Europe, there is more of an attitude of “we –women - can do anything”, and we need to learn from this in the UK. Academia, business and government have a role to play here.

For example, there is a great initiative in Scotland called CodeClan, a Digital Skills Academy to help people learn to code in 16 weeks and thus equip themselves with the skills necessary to apply for developer jobs. CodeClan is supported by the Scottish Government, Scotland’s digital technologies trade body, ScotlandIS, and Skills Development Scotland and is approved by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  This should certainly help address the problem, but there is much more we can all do.  As I wrote above, there is no short-term solution, but we need to start from somewhere and this kind of scheme will, ultimately, help change attitudes across all areas of UK society and education.

Chrisina Jayne, Head of Computing Science and Digital Media, RGU

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