Why we should actively encourage older women to join the IT industry

Inspiring the next generation is clearly important, but Softwire CEO Zoe Cunningham believes the skills gap and gender imbalance needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
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Zoe Cunningham

There are two recurrent themes that dominate tech industry recruitment – the skills shortage and lack of gender diversity. It is over fifty years since the inspirational Dame Steve Shirley founded the company that became the FI Group, yet young women are still self-selecting out of the IT business. To be fair, many young men are doing the same – a fact that is very significant in the escalating skills shortage.

In a society where teenagers know they face over fifty years in the workforce and are, therefore, encouraged to ‘follow their passion’, IT rarely figures. IT is still not a dream career despite the great work of companies such as TeenTech, which are dedicated to showing how technology can be used in business, from Formula 1 to film-making, in a bid to inspire new recruits.

Furthermore, while inspiring the next generation is essential, companies need skills today, not just in seven or ten years’ time. So, where is that talent going to come from? There is, in fact, a huge pool of untapped expertise that, while not armed with the specific technical skills required to hit the ground running, have a wealth of soft skills – from communication to emotional intelligence – that are essential to software development: older women.

Whether looking to return to work after a career break or wanting to move away from their first career, there are many older women – and men – who have the attributes and transferable skills required to make a great software developer. And, critically, while it does not necessarily require a maths background, it does require the right attitude: the ability to look at a problem and be willing and able to take the time to work towards a resolution.

It is this tenacity, combined with an ability to apply knowledge, interact well with clients and colleagues, and have good project management that is required. Then the specifics of software development can be quickly layered over the top. And that is where the new Apprenticeship Scheme offers a chance to plug the skills gap.

Not only is Software Engineer one of the agreed apprenticeship roles, but the scheme can be used to train individuals of any age, not just 16-19s.

This opens the door for companies to actively look to encourage older women into the industry – and provides these women with a chance to retrain whilst still working and earning, a key consideration for anyone looking for a career change. And the IT industry has an advantage over others when encouraging women – flexible, mobile and collaborative working is already embedded in the culture.

There was a golden era when women in IT believed true change was on its way, but it never quite happened. Despite huge efforts the gender imbalance within the IT industry continues. Unless companies actively begin to recruit older women into the business in numbers, women who can create a strong foundation of role models as well as subtly shift the perception away from a male dominated environment, bright young girls are going to continue to pursue other areas.

This is a great industry to work in for both genders but relying on enticing the young into the industry has not worked.

The new Apprenticeship Scheme provides a great opportunity to attract an older generation of women – enabling the industry to begin to address both the skills shortage and the gender balance.

Zoe Cunningham is the CEO of Softwire.

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