With its growing skills shortage and one million unfilled jobs, the tech sector is a challenging ecosystem for employers, but a great opportunity for women, says Professor Sue Black.
“The skills shortage means you can command a higher salary than many other sectors. There’s going to be more jobs in tech, not less. So, if you get yourself trained in an area which appeals to you in technology, the sky’s the limit.”
Black’s story and social mobility in tech
Black, now a professor of computer science, started her tech career long before the sector’s current skills crisis and decided, aged 26, to go back into education and take an access course in maths.
Building on her pre-existing interest in STEM subjects from school, where she had left at 16, she was also financially motivated to “earn enough money to support my kids as a single parent.” This was followed by a computing degree at London South Bank University.
Black, who reveals she was “living in poverty” while looking to pivot into tech years ago, agrees that social mobility, namely encouraging more people from less advantaged backgrounds to progress in their careers, is an aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that is slow-moving in tech and elsewhere.
She explains the vicious cycle that poor social mobility breeds, where the affluence of the area you live can determine the quality of the school you attend and the university you get into. When it comes to employment, tech firms, like those in other industries, she adds, tend to recruit from the same talent pool of Russell Group universities.
Today, Black is an advocate for more women in tech and a respected academic. She is part of a team that runs TechUPWomen at Durham University, a six-month online programme that retrains women from underserved backgrounds into tech careers.
Helping women enter tech careers
At TechUPWomen, they work with industry partners who, in Black’s words, have “told us which job roles they want to employ women into”, and the training provided takes these women “directly into those job roles and interviewing with those companies.”
For women pivoting into tech with no relevant industry or educational experience, it can be challenging to figure out what they want to do, Black agrees. To help, she advises women to look at what they enjoy in their current roles and find tech roles that correspond to those interests. Alternatively, she suggests women “see where the skill shortages are in your area.”
“So, if you’re in finance and want to move into tech, there’s various tools and software related to finance. So it could be that there’s a transitional way to move across into technology by using what you know.”
With gender equality, Black believes that tech gets a bad name for being mainly male-dominated when it’s an issue that traverses industries and is a wider societal problem.
“Whether we realise we’re doing it or not, we are encouraging girls out of science, out of maths, and out of technology. We’re not encouraging enough kids into the area at all. But girls even less so. Lots of what we teach at school are still very similar to what I learned at school; I feel it hasn’t moved on.”
While she says that teachers should get more creative with teaching STEM subjects to the “TikTok generation”, they are, she admits, constrained by the strict parameters of the national curriculum and are overworked and underpaid. Ultimately, she agrees that accountability rests with the Government to make policy changes to encourage more diverse engagement in STEM.
Aside from her career success and support of initiatives that empower women in tech, one of Black’s greatest accomplishments has been her successful digital campaign to save Bletchley Park as a site of historical significance.
Saving Bletchley Park and why social impact matters
On a visit in 2003, she discovered that over 50% of the people who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War were women. On a later visit, she found out that the work of the code breakers shortened the war by two years, saving countless lives.
By 2008, Bletchley Park was in financial trouble and at risk of closure, and it was then that Black spearheaded its rescue campaign by harnessing the power of Twitter. Like how Bletchley Park’s codebreakers used tech back in the 1900s to bring the war to a much-needed close, Black forged her form of social impact via her Twitter campaign, but the pivotal moment came when she got actor Stephen Fry involved. “I was getting about 50 hits a day on my campaign blog, and then with one tweet from Stephen Fry, it got 8,000 hits, and I became the most retweeted person in the world.” Three years later, the National Lottery Heritage Fund gave Bletchley Park 4.1 million pounds, and the house was saved.
Like Bletchley Park’s code breakers and Black’s campaign, businesses today should be emerging from the biggest disruption of our era, COVID-19, with real impact. But why should they?
Those leaving the pandemic behind focused on profit and not diversity, equity, and inclusion will find they’ll lack the “diversity of skills and experience” to succeed in the new world, says Black. For her, the successful companies of tomorrow will be establishing culture change today, which includes “helping everyone feel included from the top right the way through.”
If helping end WWII was Bletchley Park’s greatest social impact, supporting the careers of diverse talent that can serve the world’s diverse communities, and make their lives better, can be tech’s legacy today.