How is the North leading the way for diversity in tech?
Tom Renn, MD of Bruntwood SciTech - the UK property provider dedicated to the growth of the science and technology sector - looks at how the North of England is leading the way in creating a more diverse tech sector.
There’s no doubt that the lack of diversity in the tech sector is an issue. From the need to upskill and reskill more workers, to making sure there’s fairer opportunities and systems in place to ensure people of all backgrounds can work in tech, there’s certainly work to be done.
Diversity in tech isn’t just about equality, it’s about innovation, talent, skills and social responsibility.
Developing new technologies through a single lens only restricts creativity. On the other hand, developing new technologies through many lenses means more representative products of a broader demographic, driven by new perspectives, bigger visions, wider audiences and more opportunities.
Although Tech Nation’s 2020 Jobs and Skills report saw that demand for tech roles in the UK has increased 40% within the past two years, women still only represent around 17 - 19% of the tech sector workforce, and only 15.2% of tech roles are filled by people from ethnic minority groups.
Not only is there a huge gender and ethnicity gap within tech companies, but also far less investment is received by tech founders in these groups.
To put this into a local perspective, the 2019 Digital Skills Audit revealed that just one in every five technical roles in Greater Manchester are currently filled by women.
Worryingly, this underrepresentation is mirrored nationally at education level; figures from Wise Campaign reveal that just 39% of A-Level Maths students in 2018 were female, with this number dropping to 22% and 12% in Physics and Computing respectively. Despite this, girls outperformed boys in STEM subjects in 2018, showing just how much female talent the sector is missing out on.
Tech diversity starts in school
Creating a more diverse and inclusive tech sector begins in school. Bruntwood SciTech is always on the lookout to support projects and initiatives that start here, something done by Manchester Digital’s ‘Digital Her’ project.
Over the years we’ve joined the likes of Auto Trader, BJSS and GCHQ to help break down stereotypes and perceptions about what it means to work in the tech sector.
This has been really important in encouraging diversity in STEM. The 2019 Digital Her roadshow reached over 1200 girls aged 12 - 13 across Greater Manchester, with a 37% increase in young women reporting they would consider a career in digital and technology as a result of the roadshow.
Talking to young people is all about debunking the common myth that working in tech is synonymous with men coding on computers in a basement - a recurring theme amongst young people when asked the question, "what does working in tech look like?"
Across the North, more work is being done to encourage this positive change. Circle Square-based entrepreneur Nile Henry founded The Blair Project to tackle underrepresentation in motorsport. Nile and his mum, Dr Marilyn Comrie, work with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to convert used petrol go karts into fully electric e-carts.
As a result, these young people start to learn about tech through enthusiasm for battery technologies, telemetry systems, data and green tech. The point is - tech is for everyone.
Likewise, nurturing new talent through apprenticeship schemes and graduate opportunities is also crucial. ADA Digital Skills College at Manchester Technology Centre provides apprentices on behalf of industry hiring partners such as AO and Capita to offer alternative pathways into tech, whilst large corporates such as ANS have their own apprenticeship schemes to help young people, and women in particular, into technical roles within that company.
These activities and initiatives are essential for developing the pipeline of tech talent all the way from school through to careers in STEM, bridging the gap between education and industry along the way.
The need for more role models
Recognising and celebrating diverse role models in the tech sector right now is also crucial.
Role models show that the path between where people are now and where they might want to go is possible. Roles are less obscure and ‘out of reach’ when someone that looks like you is already doing it. This is important for young people, as a job or certainly a career may feel out of reach just because a person believes they don’t fit that ‘type’.
As Dr Comrie said: “People can see their own possibilities in my reality… as the CEO of the Manchester Innovation Activities Hub I hope that being black and female will inspire others, especially those in marginalised groups. They can see me and choose to be me, and this is what breaking down barriers and having role models is all about."
Upskilling and reskilling
So what about adults who are living in a tech-centric world that didn't get these opportunities in school?
Upskilling and reskilling workers is imperative for diversity, inclusivity and for the UK tech economy to succeed.
Earlier this year, global leader in CRM Salesforce published new findings in partnership with IDC highlighting the scale of the UK’s growing digital skills crisis, reporting that 9 in 10 UK workers must learn new skills by 2030.
TechUK predicts that nearly 65% of global GDP will be driven by digitised products and services, so it is crucial that existing workers aren’t left behind.
Luckily, many Northern-based businesses are already working on this. In Leeds, Baltic Apprenticeships work alongside a range of employers, from SMEs to internationally recognised brands, to support new apprentices and existing members of staff to begin a continuous new apprenticeship journey and learn new skills, whatever their age.
In 2020 Baltic Apprenticeships doubled the number of female apprentices placed in digital and tech roles compared with the year before.
Similar to this, Northcoders at Circle Square provides essential coding and tech skills training in the form of bootcamps, whether this is for young people broadening their career prospects, or for businesses and employees to learn better skills and enhance their tech knowledge.
In 2020, the Extended Ventures report found that entrepreneurs from Black, South Asian, East Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds received a total of 1.7% of VC investment from 2009 - 2019. Given that ethnic minorities make up 14% of the UK population, this shows the disproportionate underinvestment in these communities.
Female entrepreneurs also faced barriers accessing VC investment, with only 3% of VC funding going to all-female teams.
What’s important is not only that these groups have fair opportunities and pathways to establish themselves in the tech sector, but once they do they need to be supported and exposed throughout their journey by those that have the power to do so. Finding like-minded networks and communities is one way to do this.
Power in community
The Bruntwood SciTech business support team is there to get to know and understand the needs of all our entrepreneurs and connect them to the right people.
One example is WILD - born out of a frustration with the continued underrepresentation of women in tech, founders Sarah Tulip, Head of Digital Transformation at BJSS, and Deb Hetherington, Head of Innovation at Bruntwood SciTech, built a support group across Leeds.
It provides a safe and secure springboard for women of all ages to enter tech, from educating soon to be graduates, recent graduates, those in early stage careers and those returning to the workforce about the spectrum of opportunities in the sector.
As these networks get bigger and bigger, so do the funding opportunities, investment, exposure and success stories. These networks are crucial for nurturing diverse tech talent and innovation - and it’s something we pride ourselves on.
To find out more about Bruntwood SciTech and the support they have available, visit their website.