Monday 25 September 2017

To really celebrate Tech Week, we need inclusive investment in computing skills for young women

Exposure to technology can help accelerate gender equality. Stock image
Exposure to technology can help accelerate gender equality. Stock image

Joanne Dolan

This week is Tech Week. Across Ireland, technology is being celebrated by the public. This is as it should be. Access to technology is good for everyone, particularly under-represented youth, girls and marginalised communities.

Technology gets a lot of bad press. The business pages are populated by headlines about the skills gap and the need to tackle the demand for IT professionals. There's a deficit of women in technology careers. Low numbers of graduates in certain Stem subjects are compelling companies to hire from elsewhere in the EU and further afield.

The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs estimates that there are 44,500 job openings for people with high level IT skills over a six-year period - a figure the local talent pool cannot fill.

Skills shortages are detrimental to economic progress. Ireland's inability to tap into the skills and talents of all its people hampers its growth and prosperity.

Indeed, the CSO reports that the proportion of women working in jobs that require Stem skills is not only less than 25pc, but that just 6-7pc are in technology careers.

When supply of skills from within a labour force is insufficient to meet demand, an inefficient labour market results, impacting wages, and causing job and workforce migration.

How do we address this? Inclusivity.

In February, the Irish Government's Action Plan for Education announced that computer science is to be fast-tracked as a new Leaving Cert subject to meet the demand from industry. Before the first lessons begin, we need to make sure that every student can benefit from the skills needed to actively participate in the digital economy and from the opportunity and social mobility they bring.

Exposure to computer science in the classroom benefits all students, especially those who have few other opportunities to gain experience. Digitally-fluent youth are better equipped to acquire education and work. Recent research by Accenture even identifies that digital literacy "accelerates gender equality".

I have seen this first-hand through my contribution to the Teen-Turn initiative, which places girls who are from areas where third-level education is uncommon into technology career environments. More girls exploring and gaining an interest in technology has the potential to lead to more women earning technology qualifications, thus meeting the demand for skills that is currently outpacing supply.

Outside classrooms and companies, there is also an increasing need for community programmes to make technology accessible by offering individualised training, encouraging lifelong learning, and innovating ways to reach marginalised people, incorporating contributors as varied as urban planners and community organisers.

By using innovative and creative strategies which are both responsive to the community's needs and make use of new technologies, community groups can position themselves to lead change.

As an example, Dublin's North East Inner City Initiative funds The Digital Skills Project, which entails Dublin City Public Libraries collaborating with the CoderDojo Foundation to expand the role of the library as a digital learning environment.

Delivering access in the form of computer science resources for schools, training initiatives informed by industry and community outreach that educates at a local level will contribute to establishing the necessary conditions for the kind of technology inclusivity that builds the social capital that ultimately fills jobs. When made accessible to all, technology has the potential to create equality-and that's worth celebrating.

Joanne Dolan is an advisor to Teen-Turn, an organisation set up to promote inclusion and opportunities for those marginalised by gender or social disadvantage

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