13 October 2020

Forget the Fatima fury – getting more women into tech is a noble aim

By Aria Babu

Another day, another pointless Twitter storm. This time the subject of online ire was a government campaign to encourage people to pursue careers in Cyber Security. Alongside a young woman in a ballet costume, the text of one ad read “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (She just doesn’t know it yet)”.

It prompted an immediate outburst of support for the arts and pitiless mockery of this embattled government.  The writer Caitlin Moran tweeted “I don’t know if the government know they appear to have recently created a “Hopes and Dreams Crushing Department”, but for a country already depressed and anxious, I would suggest it’s a bit of a “Not now, dudes” moment?”. Shadow Health Minister Rosena Allin-Khan also joined in with: “Fatima, you be you. Don’t let anyone else tell you that you aren’t good enough because you don’t conform to their preconceived social norms”. And no good pile-on is complete without some fun memes, so some wags came up with imitation ads such asBoris’ next job could be in opposition (he just doesn’t know it yet)’.

None of them seemed to realise that this campaign was not actually anything to do with Covid, nor specifically targeted at the arts, but  part of a wider CyberFirst campaign to promote careers in information security. The Fatima advert comes from a campaign to promote a flexible 30-day course which tech training company QA are still promoting.

One of the reasons yesterday’s outrage resonated was it seemed to follow a pattern. Didn’t Rishi Sunak tell people in the arts to retrain just last week? Again, the fury was out of sync with what the Chancellor had actually said, which was: “It’s a very sad time … I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis”. That didn’t matter to the author of a Guardian op-ed, who wrote, without apparent irony, that “he didn’t not say it.”.

Meanwhile Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has distanced himself from the Fatima ad, calling it “crass” and underlining the amount of funding going to the arts.

It is a shame the reaction to all this has been so knee-jerk. The execution of the ad may have been clumsy, but the principle of challenging stereotypes about who works in tech is worthwhile – even if the ads are as transparent and condescending as the European Commission’s memorable “Science, It’s a girl thing” campaign. 

People in a whole range of sectors are going to be looking for new jobs thanks to the pandemic. At the peak of lockdown 7.5 million people were out of work and as the Government starts to unwind its support, many of those on furlough will find themselves out of work.

A new report by the Female Founders Forum, Resilience and Recovery, shows that equity-backed female-founded firms have been more severely affected by the pandemic. A range of reasons explain the disparity, from unequal household responsibilities to a lack of access to equity funding, but one key explanation was the different types of businesses men and women tend to start.

Businesses founded in the science and technology sector were less affected by Covid-19 and lockdowns, but female-founded businesses are less likely to be tech or IP-based. 

One reason for this is that  people generally found businesses in industries they work in and women are less likely to work in tech.

Girls are just as good as boys at maths but they are less likely to pursue STEM subjects at A Level and then degree level. Those that do get STEM degrees are less likely to have a STEM career. (30% of women vs 50% of men). This is a critical issue, both because STEM careers are well-paid and prestigious, so it would be a shame if women were barred from them, but also because the UK has a severe STEM skills shortage. Indeed, estimates suggest we need about 1 million new STEM professionals..

As the tech sector has boomed, the low proportion of women working in it has remained stubbornly consistent. In 2009 the proportion of women in ICT was 15.7% and ten years later it is still only 16.4%. This is while efforts to encourage women to work in engineering have been successful, with the proportion of female engineers going from 5.8% to 10.3%. 

Studies suggest that role models and building confidence in young girls is vital to ensuring we have more women in STEM, so why not run a campaign showing women they can have a career in cyber, coding, or engineering?

There are a lot of talented and highly capable women who will have found themselves unemployed because of the pandemic. Now would be a good time to show them that there are opportunities for them in an industry which they may not have previously considered. The government careers service is signposting people towards free courses, including some in computing, coding, virtual reality, and machine learning. They could make an extra effort to point women towards these resources and fund some of this retraining as part of the recovery plan.

As people are more comfortable doing things online, we should expect to see tech become a more important part of the economy.

Women should not be excluded from this growth because of out-dated stereotypes and the government should not be afraid of promoting STEM careers because of what people on Twitter might say.

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Aria Babu is a policy researcher.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.