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IoC Conference 2020: Is tech finally taking its representation problems seriously?


Author: Dr Ryan Rushton, Senior Project Manager at FutureLearn

The statistics on diversity and inclusion across the technology industry are still very troubling. Women account for almost 50% of the UK workforce, yet only 19% of professionals in technical roles are female, and even fewer (4%) are from BAME backgrounds. But for two days, the consortium of university, industry and outreach partners that is the Institute of Coding (IoC), took a long, hard look at how the tech world is addressing the disparities in gender, race, age and economic background that still plague its educational and employment offerings. 

There were some fantastic keynote speakers in Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon and Timandra Harkness, with Dr. Imafidon in particular highlighting the challenges the world of digital skills and tech still needs to tackle if it is to attract and retain people from a truly diverse pool of talent. 

One theme that she touched on, and that was covered in some of the panel sessions, was rethinking how we sell a career in tech to women in particular. Educational and employment offerings will often focus on motivations that research shows are more compelling to men, while minimising the importance of altruism, which is emerging as a key motivator to women in a potential career. In a collaborative research project between the IoC’s observatory and Deloitte, a key finding was that women were far more motivated to begin their career in tech if they understood that they’d have the chance to make a positive difference to peoples’ lives.

Here at FutureLearn, we have been really excited to be able to support IoC partners to deliver on their aims of more inclusive and accessible education. We are one of the course providers for the University of Durham’s groundbreaking TechUp Women project that has just celebrated its first graduation – taking 100 women from underrepresented backgrounds in tech and retraining them over an intensive year-long project that combines face-to-face and online learning, as well as mentoring from women at the forefront of the industry.

Educational and employment offerings will often focus on motivations that research shows are more compelling to men, while minimising the importance of altruism, which is emerging as a key motivator to women in a potential career.

We have also been very pleased to launch our Digital Skills for the Workplace collection of courses, a collaboration with the University of Leeds, which are all about helping people gain the digital and soft skills they need to flourish in the modern world of work. In particular, we were aiming to reach women and people from BAME backgrounds and so worked closely with UKBlackTech and TechMums to help us design these courses and represent what their learners were actually interested in and to ensure we were including course contributors who represented their experience. So far, this co-designed process seems to be working with 50% of surveyed learners identifying as female or non-binary. In March, we will be running hands-on sessions with these organisations and their learners to test how successful we have been in producing something that serves their needs and feels welcoming. 

One of the main things I took away from the conference was that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching those who have historically been excluded from the worlds of digital skills, technology and coding. For some it will be the kinds of large scale interventions we are making with our Digital Skills for the Workplace courses that sets them on their journey, while for others it will be the local hands-on hackathons, digital boot camps and summer schools that look to reach people on a 1-2-1 basis where the IoC will make a difference. What’s clear though is that disruption of traditional models, mixed with collaboration across higher education institutions, industry and outreach organisations needs to be at the very heart of finding new, innovative ways to solve these problems.

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