Could necessity become the driver for diversity and the solution to our crisis? Consider Bletchley Park, the Government’s top secret code breaking centre during the Second World War. The work done there is credited with having reduced the war by two to three years, saving thousands of lives and much of that work was done by women.
It’s estimated that by the time the war ended, 75% of the workforce at Bletchley was female. The women numbered around 8,000, many taking crucial roles in programming and code breaking. Shining examples include Margaret Rock, one of the leading Enigma team members, and Joan Murray, who rose through the ranks to become deputy head of the legendary Hut 8. These were fiercely intelligent, committed and skilled women working as equals alongside their male counterparts. For some of the men it was an eyeopener: this was a rare opportunity in that era for women to prove their worth professionally.
The rush for females to join the workforce during World War II was borne of necessity. Women were required by the Government to fill the gaps left by men sent off to fight and help maintain the running of the country in a time of crisis. Doors were opened – albeit in desperation – to those previously overlooked. Women provided the solution our country needed.
Today we find ourselves in a new era of talent shortage. There may be less danger to life, but there is a real risk of stunted economic development for our country. The digital skills crisis is one of the biggest challenges of our time as the prowess of the country’s workforce fails to keep pace with advancements in technology. According to the Government’s (appropriately named) Digital Skills Crisis report, the UK needs at least another 745,000 workers with digital skills in the coming years to help stem a gap that is costing £63 billion in lost additional GDP.
Many great minds have analysed and pondered the challenge of finding such volume of talent, but an undeniable sticking point is the lack of gender diversity within the technology arenas. The averages are uninspiring – women make up just 23% of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) workforce. The pipeline is not forthcoming either. Our Digital Futures Index (DFI) research showed that a mere 31% of STEM degree students are female.
There is no evidence to suggest that women don’t have the aptitude for STEM subjects. The issue is societal and within gender stereotyping, with women lacking role models from an early age and losing confidence in their own abilities to perform in STEM subjects. There is some truth in the adage ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’; we need more visible examples of females taking up roles in STEM that have long been dominated by men.
We also need to encourage girls to be more involved with digital technologies, a process kickstarted by the Government when computing was added to the national curriculum. Accenture research suggests that if we can double the pace at which women become frequent users of digital technologies, workplaces could reach gender equality by 2040 in developed nations. That would be 25 years faster than if we continue at current levels.
Equalising the workplace would represent a serious win for gender diversity in this modern age but also ease the digital skills crisis, providing the boost of talent the UK needs to thrive in the new digital age. If we can learn anything from the inspiring history of Bletchley Park, it’s that it can be done.