Thursday 19 September 2019 4:58 am

Since when was coding a job just for boys?

Claudia Harris is chair of Makers and chief executive of The Careers & Enterprise Company.

It is national coding week, and the same tired debate is raging once again: why are so few software engineers women?

An industry that is shaping our lives only represents a small minority of society. It’s bad for our collective futures, and bad for business.

New data from coding bootcamp provider Makers has shed fresh light on this debate. There’s good news – and bad news.

The good news is that female software engineers earn well in starting roles. In fact, they earn around seven per cent more than their male counterparts at £34,000 per year. 

This should be celebrated, particularly in light of other positive recent news. This year, girls took more A-levels in stem disciplines – science, technology, engineering and maths – than boys in the UK for the first time ever, and coding schools are recruiting diverse cohorts – on average, 35 per cent of our own software engineers are female.

Now for the bad news: pay parity declines over time. Just four years into their careers, women are earning an average of £10,000 less than men.

Obviously, this is not good. The starting point on female representation in this industry is already highly challenging: women make up 49 per cent of the British workforce, but just 19 per cent of the digital tech workforce. So it is disappointing to see that the benefits emerging at recruitment level are dissipating soon thereafter.

The thinking on how to tackle this problem is constantly evolving. So what can be done?

Tone from the top

Chief executives decide what their organisations focus on. It is up to them to set expectations that diverse colleagues will progress, and to take action if they don’t. 

This shouldn’t be a difficult stance to justify – there is evidence that more diverse leadership teams outperform by providing greater challenge and scrutiny.

Track the data, put the policies in place, and set the culture. Ultimately, the buck stops with those at the top.

Process and policy

A strong message from experts is that companies should try to “fix the system, not the women”. 

When chief executives are considering what to do, recognise that strong HR systems help eliminate the biases of more informal management approaches, and so put these in place.

If women are still not progressing, scrutinise the criteria. Is there a particular, non-diverse idea of what “success” looks like? Are some characteristics prioritised over others? These systemic issues cannot be solved just by training women – they must be solved by addressing biases in the organisation itself.

Support and sponsorship

In all businesses, getting apprenticed on the right projects and with the right people matters. Access to challenging work and senior people helps colleagues build important skills and connections. So ensuring that these opportunities are offered to women as well as men is crucial. 

Also, avoid accidentally overlooking women for international or demanding high-profile roles because of assumptions about family constraints. Offer high-quality opportunities and senior sponsors to everyone.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, 90 per cent of software coders and systems analysts in the US were female. In fact, the world’s very first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, was a woman. There is no reason why computing has to be a predominantly male industry.

We should build on the positive news around graduate salaries, and aim to see rapid change throughout the profession.

Main image credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.