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Girls and ICT Careers

Volume 561: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joseph Johnson.)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to the House on such an important issue today. Tomorrow is international girls in ICT day, so it is particularly appropriate that we should mark the occasion by debating what we can do to attract more girls into information and communications technology. I understand that the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), will be marking the day by speaking at a “Little Miss Geek” celebration of fashion and technology; I am glad to see a Government Minister supporting efforts to encourage girls into ICT. Celebrating technology, and women’s contribution to it, is one way of helping the sector to become more representative of the 51% of the population who do not have the Y chromosome. Right now, women make up only 12% of professional engineers and 15% of those applying for computer science degrees.

I hope that the Government, and particularly the Minister, will do more than speak at events and offer warm words of encouragement. I hope—indeed, I expect—that they will implement concrete measures to ensure that we overcome the dreadful disparity in the representation of women in ICT—a disparity that shames us as a nation, as well as impeding our economic and social progress. As you may know, Mr Speaker, this subject is dear to my heart. Having worked as a professional engineer in telecommunications for 23 years before entering this House, I know just how much more can be done to encourage and support women in ICT.

Speaking as one who has been a computer programmer, I, too, understand the need for increased opportunities for girls to go into the communications and technology industries. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a cross-government strategy that involves the education system as well as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? We need to improve the opportunities available for girls at schools and to encourage them by role models to learn about science, computer programming and other useful subjects.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and welcome the bringing of her direct experience of computer programming to this debate. She is absolutely right. I shall explain in the remainder of my speech the wide range of issues that need to be addressed if we are to overcome this disparity. We really need a positive approach and champions for it across the whole of government.

When I started my degree, 12% of my fellow electrical engineering students were women. That was almost 30 years ago. It sounds like a very long time, and it is indeed depressingly long. The most depressing thing of all, however, is that although women now make up 43% of GPs, 41% of solicitors and even 22% of Members of Parliament—a third in the Labour party, I should add—the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all. That is scandalous. In computer science, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) may well know, the figures are getting worse. The proportion of computing A-levels taken by women went down from 12% in 2004 to 8% in 2011. There is only one girl for every 11 boys in the average UK A-level computing class. We should imagine how it feels to be that girl.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a debate on this incredibly important subject. In the specific part of the video games industry, only 17% of staff are females and the industry is crying out for more. What we really need is role models to inspire the next generation and address that imbalance.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. It is certainly the case that the video games industry is a modern one; one would hope that it would be reflective of society, including those who play games, but it is not. I shall show a little later that the figures I have for females in the video games industry are even worse than the hon. Gentleman’s 17%.

At the same time, half of the UK’s co-educational state schools send no girls at all to sit A-level physics. In 2012, 2,400 female students from the UK went on to full-time undergraduate computer courses, as opposed to over 15,000 men. Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of technology jobs held by women declined from 22% to 17%. My figures show that only 6% of those who work in ICT in the UK games industry are women, despite the fact that they make up 50% of those who play the games.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) raised an important issue earlier. I spoke to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) before the debate, asking if I too could intervene on her speech.

According to e-skills UK in Northern Ireland, the potential for Northern Ireland to be a global leader in the field of technology will increase over the next few years, and 9,200 jobs will be needed over a five-year period. Along with the industry, e-skills UK in Northern Ireland is taking active steps to encourage ladies and young girls to become involved. Does the hon. Lady think that the active measures that are being taken in a region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland might serve as an example for the rest of the United Kingdom?

I agree that we need to be very active in encouraging girls into the industry. I am pleased to hear about the job opportunities in Northern Ireland. There are other job opportunities throughout the country, and we need to ensure that girls are in a position to take advantage of them.

Gender segregation is at its most extreme in skilled trades such as that of electricians. Women constitute only 1% of the work force in such occupations, which is barely significant in statistical terms. I commissioned House of Commons Library research which has armed me with a large—depressingly large—number of similar statistics. It is clear that we are doing much worse in this regard than many of our European and OECD counterparts. I want to focus on what we can do about it, “we” being the ICT sector, civil society and, as I hope the Minister will acknowledge, the Government.

I worked in ICT as an engineer for 23 years. I must emphasise that I was often fortunate enough to have great male bosses who were determined that working in an all-male, or almost all-male, environment should not be a barrier to a successful career for a woman. However, I have known other managers who were not so supportive, and company cultures that worked against attracting girls and women into ICT and did absolutely nothing to help them to stay there.

Last year, when I was a shadow business, innovation and skills Minister, I wrote to 10 of the leading companies in the engineering and technology sector to ask what they were doing to improve the situation. I wrote to BAE Systems, Google, Microsoft, IBM, ARM, Rolls-Royce, BP, Shell, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover. Their responses are summarised on my website. What was quite amusing was that two of the companies addressed their letters of response to “Mr Onwurah”. I shall not name them, but it did make me wonder how accustomed they were to engaging with women.

Not surprisingly, nearly every company claimed that it was hiring women in proportions above the national average. The exception was ARM, which candidly said that the proportion of women was higher in its divisions outside the UK, especially in India. Female literacy in India is just 65%, while male literacy is 82%. The fact that India is doing so much better than we are in regard to ICT gender balance is particularly striking for that reason.

It is also striking that IBM did not respond to my inquiry despite repeated entreaties, while Google and Microsoft responded but refused to release any figures. As relatively young companies, at least in comparison with, for instance, Shell and Rolls-Royce, they might be expected to be at the forefront of gender equality. Both Google and Microsoft cited confidentiality as their reason for not revealing the proportion of women whom they employed in ICT. That is rather strange, because it suggests either that Google and Microsoft do not know how to aggregate and anonymise such information—which, given that they are leaders in big data management, is worrying—or that they have so few women employees that giving the figure would necessarily identify individuals. That is also very worrying.

The more traditional companies were more open about releasing figures, with Ford giving the most detailed breakdown across different job types. Most firms said that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in ICT, engineering and science, and all the firms said that getting more women into those fields was a corporate priority. Most outlined steps that they were taking, from overhauling corporate procedures, for example, making sure that women were on interview panels, to intervening early in schools to steer girls towards STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects and careers.

Companies emphasised the importance of female role models in encouraging female graduates or apprentices to join them, and detailed the steps they were taking to develop networking forums or to push high-potential females up the employee hierarchy. ARM was the most forthright when asked what private or public sector initiatives firms found useful. It said

“most initiatives that directly address the issue are clearly failing at a national level and make little difference.”

According to the ARM representative, the most effective means would be role models and TV commentators or presenters who make the subjects sexy and exciting. I agree in part. A high profile ICT series on TV would probably change perceptions overnight. We saw what the success of “Silent Witness” did for the proportion of women in forensics.

The responses I received showed that there is such a wide range of challenges to address that we need a wide-ranging response, as was mentioned earlier.

Does my hon. Friend agree that employers could do much more by offering work placements, early apprenticeships and visits to factories, and that the Department for Education needs to do more to encourage interaction? Young people could then make decisions much earlier about whether ICT was a career they would be interested in. Often, it is too late when they are 18.

I thank my hon. Friend. She raises an extremely important point and I shall dwell on it in more detail later. She is right. One of the key messages that I hope the Minister will take from the debate is the importance of ensuring engagement with employers. Often employers are willing to make arrangements to go into schools, but do not feel that they can identify schools or know how to set about it.

We should encourage employers to engage with schools. One of my first parliamentary questions was to ask who was responsible for ensuring engagement between industry and primary schools. The response was that no one in the Government was responsible, in either the Business or Education teams. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that in her response.

As well as improving the image of ICT, we need to look at the working environment of women in ICT, and at higher, secondary and, very importantly, primary education, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and careers advice. We also need to look at our culture, which socialises girls to think that ICT is not for them.

Does my hon. Friend have a view about the suggestion of some educationists that it would be helpful if some schools separated girls in ICT classes? Some people say that when boys get into the ICT classroom they dominate the machines.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In single-sex schools, it is certainly the case that more girls study A-level science than in co-educational schools. There is evidence that girls do better in a single-sex environment. It is not clear whether that is due to the presence of strong female role models or, in other schools, the influence of boys who may be more aggressive in taking resources. I would say to my hon. Friend that schools should examine ways of ensuring that girls are engaged and excited. For example, I know that all-girl science and computer science clubs successfully engage girls with ICT in an environment that they find comfortable and stimulating, which is what we are trying to achieve. If we are considering how society socialises girls away from ICT, we could wonder why girls’ toys are generally pink and patronising, and rarely involve any ICT participation, while boys’ toys tend to be more centred on engineering, machines and ICT.

The sample of responses that I received demonstrates just how much is being done. I am worried that Microsoft and Google, which are role models in their own right, do not appear to want to let anyone know how well—or how badly—they are doing. I trust that the Minister agrees that it is essential that we have such information if we are to understand what we need to achieve. However, I was impressed by the measures that many companies are taking to attract girls to ICT, which suggests that there an increasing desire for change which was missing during large parts of my career in the industry. Indeed, I was at an industry event only last night at which several representatives of large ICT companies raised that issue with me before I had the chance to ask them about it. Given that I usually raise the issue with such companies at a very early stage, one can imagine how quickly they beat me to it by talking about that to me.

There is a large number of initiatives in place, and as part of my preparation for this debate, and given that tomorrow is girls in ICT day, I crowd-sourced examples from Twitter. I was impressed by the number of organisations that are actively working to attract girls to ICT. For example, Nominet is sponsoring computer clubs for girls and Sunderland Software City in the north-east is setting up a coders academy. Primary Engineer encourages primary school pupils to engage with STEM education. As we have heard, we know that it is critical to engage girls at a young age, before preconceptions have formed, because by the time that they are taking their GCSEs, they might have ruled themselves out of ICT due to earlier choices. Little Miss Geek, Girl Geeks and ScienceGrrl try to inspire girls into ICT, while WISE promotes female talent in science, engineering and technology from classroom to boardroom. Athena SWAN and STEMNET—the science, technology, engineering and mathematics network—support women in ICT and STEM careers, and help to them become role models for the next generation.

While there are many initiatives, the challenge is to know how well they are working and how to help them to work better, yet I fear that the Government are failing to take up that challenge. I suspect that the Minister will disagree with that, but let us look at the evidence. The Government ended funding for UKRC, the organisation dedicated to supporting girls and women into ICT. They claim to be making the ICT curriculum more flexible, but they are in fact simply disapplying all standards and requirements of the national curriculum. They have reduced support for, and undermined, careers advice, which is the key way of helping into ICT those many girls who have no direct contact with ICT professionals as part of their background.

The Government have reduced support for small and medium-sized businesses. Increasing diversity in the workplace can be more challenging for SMEs that do not have dedicated human resource departments and may instead rely on older recruitment methods—for example, employing friends of current staff, which means that the work force do not become more diverse over time. Of course, employing one’s friends can happen in larger organisations, and even in Government. But the Government should be offering more support for skills in small businesses, rather than turning Business Link from a face-to-face support organisation into a website and a phone line.

We have no roadmap, no plan, no targets and no framework to help us assess whether we are on the right track to attract more girls into ICT. Can the Minister explain what the Government are doing? Can she say how, for example, if I am a teacher in a primary school in Newcastle, I can find out what resources are available to make ICT more appealing, and what incentives there are for doing that? What steps are the Government taking to use subjects which do engage girls, such as climate change, to make ICT more appealing? Will removing climate change from the national curriculum make that easier or harder? How is the Minister ensuring that primary school teachers in particular have the right ICT skills themselves, given the higher salaries paid in the private sector? Research shows that because of the cultural factors relating to ICT and girls, the quality of teaching is a far more important factor in girls’ decisions in relation to ICT than it is in boys’ decisions.

What are the Government doing in response to the Nesta report on video games entitled “Next Gen—Transforming the UK into the world’s leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries”, which said:

“The content and delivery methods of computer science teaching will need to change to address ... misperceptions (especially in the eyes of girls)”?

In December 2011, Ofsted said in its report “ICT in schools 2008-11”:

“Very few examples were seen of secondary schools engaging with local IT businesses to bring the subject alive for their students. This was a particular issue for girls, many of whom need a fuller understanding of ICT-related career and education options to inform their subject choices at 14 and 16 years of age.”

How has cutting back the careers service Connexions to become solely an online and telephone service helped this? The House of Commons Education Committee described this change as resulting in a “worrying deterioration” in the overall standard of careers advice.

The lack of women in ICT is a scandal but it also a huge loss. It is a loss to the country, with a talent pool half the size it could be. Every year the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s skills survey shows a severe skills shortage, and it is no wonder if we are excluding half our population. I am sure the Minister will be interested to know that it also represents a loss to women in not having entry to these rewarding careers and therefore contributes to the gender pay gap. The average technology professional’s salary was over £38,000 per year in 2011, 50% higher than the average across all sectors.

The lack of women in ICT represents a loss to society of the types of ICT that might come from non-male perspectives. I do not hesitate to say that an ICT work force that was more representative of humanity would result in technology which was more humane. All too often technology is imposed upon us aggressively and before it is fit for purpose. And yes, I am thinking of automatic tills at supermarkets when I say that. It is common sense, because we know that innovation comes from the creative exchange of ideas between individuals. If all the individuals in a company or sector come from the same background, there is necessarily a limit to the ideas and innovation.

There is also an intangible loss, but a hugely important one, to our society. Many of the challenges we face, such as climate change, an ageing population with greater health needs and a world of 7 billion people, have technology at their heart, but we are handicapped in addressing them because technology does not have a place in our hearts. Technology will never have the position it merits at the heart of our society and economy if it remains the preserve of such a narrow section of society. To drive our economy forward sustainably, ICT needs to be a part of our society and our culture. Given the challenges we face as a nation, we cannot allow ICT to remain such a male occupation.

In conclusion, to improve the gender balance in ICT the Government need to show leadership in ways that are more concrete than mere warm words of support. I hope that is what I will hear in the Minister’s response.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for raising this important subject and respect her experience in the sector. It is a crucial area for the economy, and one where we need to increase the number of people, particularly women, who have relevant IT skills.

Earlier today I attended a “hackathon” event at Facebook headquarters, where 80 talented young coders from around the world were developing applications for social learning, and I am pleased to say that there was a good representation of young women there. Organisations such as Facebook are doing an enormous amount of good work with schools to inspire young people to take up careers in IT, but let us be honest: we have a long-standing problem with computer science in this country and with the number of women studying it.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, under the previous Government the proportion of women taking computing A-levels fell from 12% to 8% as a proportion between 2004 and 2011. The current situation is indeed poor. For A-level computer studies in 2012, only 255 of the 3,420 entrants—just 7.5%—were girls, which represents a decline of three quarters over the past 10 years. There is a similar problem with physics, as 6,500 girls took physics A-level in 2012, which is only 21% of the total cohort, and the situation has remained static over the past 10 years. The number of girls studying maths A-level has doubled over the past 10 years, but the situation is not as positive for further maths, which is very important for STEM subjects at university. Some 3,700 girls took further maths in 2012, which is only 30% of the cohort.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, the situation is very different in other countries, particularly emerging economies, which have seen their share of women studying computer science and engineering increase drastically. In India the proportion of female undergraduates has doubled, and in Malaysia technical jobs are dominated by women. As she pointed out, 26 April is international girls in ICT day, which is very important. The Government think that the situation has to change.

A lot has changed in IT since I used to program BASIC at school in the 1990s. There has been a technology revolution. Technology affects every area of our lives and so many different jobs. It has changed the way we do politics and business and so many things about how we deliver public services. A sound knowledge of how ICT works and of the underlying architecture of computing is important for everybody, whether they are looking to get into motor manufacturing, politics or any area of commerce. It is a universal skill that we all need, and all young people will need it. It is a very important part of our curriculum developments. That is why we are reforming the ICT curriculum. We disapplied the existing curriculum because it was not fit for purpose.

That is an incredibly important point, because when I visit representatives of the UK games industry, they say time and again that graduates simply are not equipped with the necessary skills and almost have to start again, and that more often than not it is easier to import labour from abroad, which is creating further barriers to females and males in this country who could play an important part in this growing economy.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point and agree with it. Our new computing curriculum is very different, because it is not just about how to use the software and programmes, but about getting young people coding from a very early age and understanding the architecture of computing.

Can we clarify this point? We have the ICT curriculum and the computing curriculum. There are no guidelines or standards for ICT, because the national curriculum has been disapplied, but are there any guidelines to encourage girls and make it more appealing to them? I am pleased to hear that the computing course has been made more vigorous.

To be clear, under the national curriculum, what was the ICT curriculum will be called the computing curriculum, so we are renaming the subject. We have been working with the British Computing Society to create a new curriculum that addresses issues such as how to use digital devices, but that also focuses much more on understanding programming and coding. Primary school students will, therefore, be doing programming from quite a young age, using programmes such as Scratch, which has been developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and which enables young children to programme an on-screen cat to do certain things. It is attractive for children and gives them an understanding of how programming works. By the time they get to key stage 3, they will be learning at least two programming languages, so this is a real step change.

We have also recently announced that GCSE computer science will be added to the list of science options in the English baccalaureate. We are, therefore, taking computer science very seriously as a subject. We recognise the importance of computing knowledge and skills for the future of the economy, so we want to raise its quality and profile in schools. We also want to make it a universal subject that is attractive to boys and girls alike, which is important.

The Department has been working in partnership with the British Computing Society to help to prepare teachers for the challenges of teaching this curriculum. I assure the hon. Lady that many employers and leading companies in the IT industry are already engaged in helping schools to implement that curriculum.

I announced this morning that the Government will provide the British Computing Society with more than £2 million over the next two financial years to support the training of computer science master teachers, who will then communicate with other teachers across the network to make sure that the subject is taught well in all our schools.

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to start young in encouraging girls to take up these careers. It is important that young people should be encouraged not to close off options by dropping subjects that may be important later. That points to a wider issue relating to engineering, IT and other STEM disciplines, because those subjects have the highest earning premiums with regard to A-level, degree and PhD, and women often lose out on the possibility of valuable and engaging careers because they do not study those subjects earlier in their school life.

We think that primary school is really important, and we are strengthening the mathematics curriculum. It is also important that children are exposed to programming and coding at an age when they can see their potential and how exciting they are before going to secondary school. That is a critical part of our programme.

Britain has a wider cultural problem—I think a few other countries suffer from it as well—with the perception of careers in computing, IT and engineering and people not understanding the wide variety of careers available. I have been in discussions with leading companies, some of which the hon. Lady has mentioned, about how we can raise the profile of engineering, show the myriad options available and raise the profile of IT and make it an aspirational career for young people. I think that primary school is particularly critical in being able to do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who is interested in financial education, will be interested to know that I discussed with the Personal Finance Education Group this morning how we can talk about the value of careers as part of financial education, so that children understand what skills will be expected in the careers of the future and what they should study if they want to achieve those goals in their life.

It is important to mention that a career in ICT is not just about computing. Scientific and mathematical skills are needed as well. We are working to ensure that everybody studies mathematics to age 18 by introducing new core mathematics qualifications for students who have a GCSE but are not doing A-level maths. We have announced an expanded further mathematics support programme to ensure that the number of students who take maths and further maths continues to increase. The feedback that I have received from the IT industry is that it often recruits from other countries because there are more students with higher level maths skills.

We are giving computing a new impetus through a challenging new curriculum, sustained support for teacher training and robust qualifications.

I welcome the measures that the Minister has mentioned on improving the teaching of maths, computing and STEM subjects more generally. That is very important, but will she say what she is doing specifically to support girls into ICT?

Because we are making the subject universal, girls will be doing programming as well as boys. That is important. As the hon. Lady said, it is important not to gender divide this technology, which underlies the whole of our society and politics. We have programmes for getting girls to study physics, such as the Stimulating Physics Network. However, our view is that so few students are learning programming skills at an early age that the best thing to do is to have a universal programme that reaches everybody.

A lot of organisations work in this area—the hon. Lady mentioned some of them—such as the Computer Club for Girls, the Code Club, the Computing at School network and Apps for Good, the chief operating officer of which in the UK, Debbie Forster, is an excellent role model for girls in the industry.

There is a particular issue with girls that we need to address. However, I believe that our focus on ensuring that teachers are trained up so that they understand the career opportunities in IT and know what programming is and how to teach it to young children will be critical in shaping the future and in shaping young girls’ expectations of their potential.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising these issues.

Before the Minister moves on, will she say more about careers? There is now a deficit in the careers advice for all young people, but particularly for girls. Such advice often rests with teachers, who might not have any experience of industry, having gone from school to university and back to school. How will she bridge that gap and provide more careers education that allows young people to understand the vast range of jobs in engineering, and in ICT specifically?

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. Our approach is to engage with industry through the British Computer Society to ensure that there are more direct links with schools. It is helpful for students to see a local business person in the classroom and to understand what they do and what opportunities are out there. It is therefore helpful for businesses to engage directly with teachers. We have made the new national curriculum much more flexible so that teachers can design their own curriculum that is based on the national curriculum, but that reflects the resources available locally and engages with the master computer science teachers that we are creating.

No, I am sorry, but I have already taken a number of interventions.

It is now up to schools, working with industry, to engage all pupils, particularly girls, and ensure that they have the opportunities they need. ICT skills need to be universal and something that we as a society do. Computer science will be taught in the national curriculum alongside subjects such as maths, English and languages, because we believe it to be vital.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central for raising the issue. The need for more girls doing IT, physics and maths should be higher up the agenda of our national ambitions, so I am grateful to her for drawing attention to it. Demand for high-level skills in computing will only grow in the years ahead, and it is vital that we tap into the 50% of the population who are not currently doing as much IT as they could. We must also improve the general level of programming skills across the spectrum.

In work, academia and their personal lives, young people will depend on their technological literacy and knowledge, and we have a duty to ensure that they have the right skills that will serve them well in their future study and career.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.