London won’t reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution if we don’t find ways to recruit more female computer engineers into the tech industry.
The fourth industrial revolution – lauded as the next big leap of progress from Silicon Valley to Davos to White City – combines physical, digital and biological technologies to create “intelligent systems”.
The “cogs” in the fourth industrial revolution – such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things, quantum computing and driverless vehicles – could profoundly improve our lives, in much the same way that the internet positively disrupted the old order.
But if we want these technologies to evolve in a way that is representative of our communities, we need diversity at every level of the sector. A lack of women computing engineers means future technologies could be skewed towards a male market and fail to tap into the needs of half of the population.
Britain is lagging behind
And here is where Britain falls behind. The reality is that the UK has the lowest percentage of female computer engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10 per cent. Here in Britain we have a rich history of female computer scientists, from Ada Lovelace, who developed the first ever computer algorithms in the 1840s, to Karen Sparck Jones, whose work on language and information processing helped lay the groundwork for today’s AI.
But right now, there are 13,085 more male than female students in computing science.
More women need to populate the boardrooms of London’s tech sector. Greater gender diversity will improve the sector’s influencing capacity, helping to guide government policy in the development of this new digital economy.
The Royal Academy of Engineering says the country needs more than a million computing engineers in the next 10 years if London, and indeed the UK, is to maintain its world-leading competitive edge. With Brexit and immigration restrictions looming, we quite simply won’t be able to achieve this goal if we don’t make it a priority to encourage more women into the sector.
Education, education, education
Education is the key. At Imperial College London it is gratifying to see many female academics and students making their mark in computing science.
Imperial’s Coline Chabran, an MSc student who is studying computing science and AI, is an example of this can-do spirit. She and her peers are developing the tech startup firm Donaco, an online app that measures a user’s interest in online articles, recommending charities relevant to the article. Recently, they were national winners of the Imagine Cup, sponsored by Microsoft.
But we need a lot more success stories like Coline’s if we are to redress the gender imbalances in the industry and academia.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said that despite the clear evidence of a growing gender gap, there has been a “deafening policy silence” on the issue.
While government can help by looking into equal pay and career opportunities, we also need a collective effort that draws on the strengths of academia, industry and the general public. We must look at why so many women do not see technology as an appealing career choice, and what businesses and educational institutions can do to attract the best talent, regardless of gender.
On 23 June, as part of Imperial’s International Women in Engineering Day celebrations, I will be hosting a panel discussion with some of the female leaders in the technology sector. Speakers include Saadia Zahidi, head of Education, Gender and Work at the World Economic Forum, and Dame Wendy Tan, co-founder of Entrepreneur First and one of the most successful angel investors in London.
We’ve invited young women from across the UK to come along and discuss pragmatic policies aimed at overcoming gender biases and persistent barriers that keep women away from careers in computing.
It is a complex issue, but we think part of the problem is the fact that computing jobs that are still viewed as “just for the boys”. The lack of role models due to an extremely low percentage of women in higher management, especially in academia and research, could also explain the scarcity of female applicants in the field. As a society, we could all benefit from reevaluating what we assume a “typical” computer scientist looks like. The underpayment of female engineers, as is alleged to be happening at Google, could also be a major deterrent for women.
By identifying barriers and showing positive role models in the field, we hope that it will encourage more young women into the tech sector. It is a drop in the ocean, but it’s a start.
The tech industry is already a major driver of prosperity for the UK, and we have the potential to be world leaders – but only if we can learn to nurture our female talent.