Improving diversity in IT and computing

Improving diversity in IT and computing - Tech For Good

The UK’s IT industry has grown rapidly in recent years to keep pace with unprecedented levels of technological change. This has created thousands of job opportunities, as well as a greater need for new talent with a range of digital skillsets.

Yet, while the sector’s technology is known for being forward thinking and fast-paced, its diversity is lagging behind. Dr Mohammed Rehman, Head of School of Computing at Arden University, explores the current state of play of diversity in the IT and computing sector, discussing what more can be done to boost the sector’s diversity, and the role education has to play.

Current state of play for IT diversity

If we look at the sector’s gender diversity, women remain underrepresented in IT. In fact, just 27% of technology roles are filled by women, and only 27.1% of managers and leaders in tech are female. More concerningly, however, is that this representation is trending in the wrong direction, where pre-pandemic, women held almost 29% of tech roles.

The sector’s disparity also extends to ethnic minorities – which represents one of the sector’s most prominent diversity issues. In the sector, representation of ethnic minorities is estimated to be only 19%. However, this imbalance is improving, with the percentage increasing significantly from just 3% in 2015.

Where does the problem start?

To understand the root cause of the IT and computing industry’s diversity issues, we have to look towards the beginning: education.
Research shows that, on average, females tend to outperform their male counterparts at school, yet, in STEM subjects, they remain outnumbered – with only 35% of women choosing to study STEM subjects beyond GCSE level, and only 25% of graduates in STEM subjects being female.

One issue is that STEM subjects are often seen to be male-dominated, which can be off-putting for females at school age. Additionally, traditional career routes into the tech sector often reinforce the industry’s stereotypes – whether that relates to gender, age or personality. However, the truth is anyone can do any type of job if they have the relevant qualifications, skills or training. To attract a more diverse range of talent to the tech industry, educational institutions need to try just as hard as tech businesses to welcome all types of students.

Diversity agendas set to fail…

In the academic year 2021/22, only 12.9% of undergraduate entrants were from an Asian background, 8.5% were Black, 4.8% were from a mixed ethnic background, and 2.3% were from other minority ethnic groups. When looking at postgraduate study, those numbers fall to 10.2%, 6.6%, 3.7% and 2% respectively.

Those from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds typically decide to go to university later in life. This is usually because they need to focus on other commitments first, such as caring for their family (sometimes financially), and therefore skip higher education. Or, alternatively, they may be first generation students, and as a such, have less support and guidance to continue their education. As a result, it is often not until later they have the time, experience, money and understanding to consider working towards a degree.

In fact, older students are more likely to be from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups. Research shows that mature students are more likely to be Black, Asian or minority ethnic, have known disabilities and have non-traditional qualifications, than younger students.

So, what role do universities have to play in closing the ethnic disparity? Firstly, they need to appeal to mature students and to a wider range of students. To do this effectively, considering how they can embed flexibility into learning, for example, is wise. Additionally, giving students the opportunity to pause their education journey, without having to wait until the start of the new academic year to resume, is the ideal universities should be moving towards.

Higher education systems need to devise courses that are more welcoming to underrepresented demographics. Grants and scholarships are all in good taste, but flexibility and a willingness to be less rigid with traditional forms of assessment and applications are vital. Opening up courses to the wider array of expertise and intelligence among us requires universities to ensure their assessments truly capture the different skills many possess. This can be done by taking into account professional experience, or by using practical assessments, rather than solely focusing on essays and judging based on theoretical knowledge. A phrase of mine that stands true here is: “Let’s actually do computing; let’s not just talk about it.”

Starting with the soft skills

IT and computing schools should also be responding to the shift in talent demand from the technology sector. In the age of automation, we are seeing more companies looking for soft skills, such as interpersonal and communication skills, rather than practical skills.

Opening up modules and courses to cover this will get students ready for future jobs – both inside and outside of the technology industry. The necessary practical skills are, of course, important, but these can be taught over time – and many companies are now willing to pay to train candidates with the right soft skills.

Additionally, providing work experience opportunities to women or ethnic minorities, or getting them to participate in STEM lectures or events, will strengthen awareness and encourage them to pursue a career in tech. A big barrier women and ethnic minorities face when it comes to climbing their career ladder is that they don’t see many examples of people who look like them, or share a similar background, that are succeeding in the field – and this is especially true for IT and computing.

By ensuring all students have a strong foundational skillset, and by exposing them to the possibilities the IT and computing sector has to offer, we will start to see the sector’s disparity begin to decrease. But that needs to start from the beginning – when students are still at school. Change needs to start here to influence the future talent pool and boost the sector’s diversity for the long-term.

Dr. Mohammed Rehman is Head of School of Computing at Arden University.

Having worked in the media, publishing and IT industries at the beginning of his career, Dr. Rehman moved into academia in 2001, teaching and leading in the Computing and Business subject areas. He completed his PhD at Warwick University in the Department of Computing, investigating the extent to which the use of mobile devices for learning is influenced by the cultural context of the learner.

Having started as a Technologist/Lecturer, Dr. Rehmnan progressed to Senior Lecturer in the areas of IT, Computing and Multimedia and is now Head of School for Computing at Arden University, – leading a team of academics and with responsibility for Computing provision across undergraduate and postgraduate courses in areas such Computing and Data Analytics.


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