If we’re heading for a skills gap in tech, then we need to get girls coding

Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

Whatever you think of the idea of Brexit, it’s making things murky. We don’t know what we’re heading into. We’re all projecting — predicting anything from chaos and anarchy to pomp and empire — but none of us know. Even the Cabinet aren’t coming up with the same guesses.

What is certain is that there are fundamental issues, like the Single Market and the free movement of people, yet to be negotiated, still less decided. So the shape and nature of the future economy of the UK remains more than a little uncertain.

That prospect doesn’t sit well with the long-held concept that the UK will be a tech economy and that we will code our way out of trouble. There’s a significant dislocation here: we already have a tech skills gap, currently papered over by the migrant web developers, many of whom will be forced apply for visas to remain in the UK.

And they won’t do that. Because why should they, when they can find a more welcoming environment elsewhere? When other companies will ape Samsung and think that Berlin looks better than London. Or they will lap up Emmanuel Macron’s entreaties to move to France.

There might be a lot of empty desks in Tech City.

So what next? Well, the chances are the answer is sitting right by you. They’re called ‘women’.

As it stands, 4% of gaming programmers are women. As are seven of the of the world’s top 100 tech billionaires. In 2015, women held 57% of all professional occupations, but only 25% of all computing occupations. The only place where women get involved in coding on anything like an equitable basis is in teaching it.

The culture remains one of ‘coding is for boys’, and ‘too difficult’ — and that’s a problem. It means the existing tools for coding education are actually putting most girls off wanting to learn more about coding and creating on the web. Instead, we want to build tools to give girls both the skills and the confidence to code. As The Wise Campaign put it, if girls aren’t interested in #STEM subjects by the age of 11, they’re unlikely to switch back.

So why aren’t we trying harder to solve this specific problem?

There’s plenty of places women can learn coding (really, plenty) and plenty of ways they can be empowered to do so. But so many of them start after the most formative years, at primary level, and the fact is, if we don’t look at the root of the problem, this issue is never going to be solved.

There are countries which are getting it right — according to UNESCO numbers, in 2015, women in the GCC comprised as much as 60% of engineering students in some universities, compared with 30% in the US and Europe combined — which suggests that the UK has a cultural issue with the way we teach coding to girls.

It’s that particular issue that we at Erase All Kittens are trying to address. Finding the way to engage young girls in the languages which will define their future. So we’re looking at ways to teach girls aged 8–13 HTML, CSS and Javascript — the real languages of technology.

EraseAllKittens.com

We’re making headway — the game already has 120,000 players across the world, with 53% of them girls (it is estimated that 18% of girls participate in code education outside of school). We’re not trying to force boys out, we’re aiming for equality, by offering tools which appeal to both genders and don’t offer either the sword and sorcery approach or the ponies and make-up approaches to gaming which can bore and patronise girls in equal measure.

We’re not the only ones, we should give equal billing to the splendid MamaCodes (which deals with the building blocks of coding at an earlier ages) and GoldieBlox which takes a broader brush to the issue of empowering girls by ‘disrupting the pink aisle in toy stores’.

Gender equality in coding education will, eventually, lead to equality in the gender balance in the tech industry. And in doing so, will increase the numbers of available, UK-based talent for the tech industry to grow. In the meantime, we’re heading for more than a skills gap, it’s a skills chasm.

And yet the answer was there all along.

Jimmy Leach is the Chief of Busyness at Erase All Kittens, working on strategy, communications and partnerships.