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Young Women Code: The Project Aimed at Tackling Gender Disparity in Scotland’s Digital Tech Sector

Last week, I sat down with Saffron Roberts, Research and Facilitation Coordinator at The Young Women’s Movement – Scotland’s national organisation for young women’s feminist leadership and collective action against gender inequality.

Saffron and I spoke about Young Women Code, a project funded by the Workplace Equality Fund, which contributes to ending gender disparity in the digital technology sector in Scotland.

Currently, there is a huge disparity in the representation of women across the tech sector in Scotland. The Young Women’s Movement uses the critical mass percentage – meaning the critical number needed to affect policy and make change – of 30%. The disparity of women in Scotland’s tech sector currently stands at 23%, highlighting the necessity for major change.

The Project

In Phase One of the Young Women Code project, The Young Women’s Movement worked alongside CodeClan, Scotland’s former digital skills academy, conducting an in-depth review to identify, address and reduce the intersecting barriers and challenges facing women entering and progressing within the digital tech sector.

They spoke to students, staff and alumni, and worked with them on an audit of their processes, policies, and data to identify how many women they had in their training academies and staff teams. They then drew up a report looking at what CodeClan was doing well and where they were lacking. Importantly, the review also contains a set of recommendations for improvement that can be adapted for any organisation in the digital tech sector. This includes guidance on the development of part-time and hybrid courses, support and outreach, job and course advertising, as well asand flexible working options.

Based on these recommendations, The Young Women’s Movement coordinated with a working group of Codeclan staff, students and alumni to decide on what kind of training could be delivered to increase the number of women involved throughout the academy. The training involved raising awareness of what gender disparity looks like in the digital tech sector, learning about intersectionality, exploration of specific case studies and ‘myth-busting’ exercises that were all relevant to CodeClan themselves.

The initial aim of the Young Women Code project was to work with CodeClan to increase their intake of women to 30%. Unfortunately, CodeClan liquidated in August 2023, but the Young Women Code project was able to continue with Codeclan’s partners, delivering similar tailored training free of charge, fully funded by the Workplace Equality Fund. 

This phase has just finished and now the next phase (running until March 2024) is working with those organisations to see what they gained from the training and to see if there are any gaps where they didn’t learn or develop.

 “Like Spktral, we think it’s really important to give that tailored, continued support.”

What does inequality in the digital tech sector look like?

Saffron explains that there are a variety of factors causing gender inequality in the tech sector that were identified as a result of the Young Women Code project. Notably, she emphasises that many organisations and individuals fall behind because they are not proactively taking the steps necessary to ending gender disparity:

“It is really important to actively do things to include, rather than thinking ‘I don’t do anything to exclude.”

And it isn’t just getting into the sector, Saffron notes. Where women are landing these jobs, many are finding that they aren’t being promoted. Sometimes, when women are being promoted, they end up being promoted down a route that is more HR, communications or marketing-orientated, despite their technical skills and qualifications. 

The problem of gender bias, and roles being perceived as more suited to one gender over the other, is seen across a range of different sectors. Saffron identifies the issue of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills that are pushing women away from roles that require tech skills assumed to be naturally possessed by men. Job descriptions are at risk of using male-coded language that can reinforce this assumption that men are more fitted to advertised roles than women:

“There’s this big problem that people believe that men are naturally more apt at doing maths, doing science, at being techy – the kind of ‘tech bro’ idea that this is a masculine skill – and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because we assume that and therefore men are the ones who get those jobs, men are the ones who get promoted, because people have this ingrained assumption that they’re going to be better even if they’re not.”

The Young Women Code project also identified issues with part-time, hybrid options for courses being offered at CodeClan. The only part-time course offered through CodeClan had the highest number of women students (58%), suggesting that increasing part-time options may directly increase the number of women enrolled in the academy. Research by Working Families suggests the same benefit can be seen in staff roles, which could have a positive implication for the number of women in leadership positions. They have called for employers to offer a wider availability and promotion of part-time and job share options, in order to reduce the gender seniority gap and make flexible working the norm in senior roles. 

Moreover, the Young Women Code report calls for improved maternity and paternity policies to keep women engaged in work. Saffron emphasises:

Women’s value in the workplace, whether they choose to become mothers or not, should not change, and you should still be able to earn a living while having a child.”

This reiterates recent findings by the Fawcett Society on the Motherhood Penalty: unfair maternity and paternity policies are only one aspect of the hurdles women who have children have to jump through in the workplace. Having an equal and fair offer of paternity leave, Saffron suggests, sets the tone that the parenting load should also be equal, and challenges the idea of a hierarchy between men and women who are parents. 

What was the reception like?

“I wasn’t really sure what we were going to get with the tech sector in general because it has such a distinct lack of balance with gender, but what I’ve found is when I’ve gone into these organisations their reception is really good and people really value the space to be able to just ask questions.”

Saffron notes that what has really shone through in the Young Women Code project is the interest people have shown in learning from and listening to each other. In particular, people have valued the opportunity to learn about intersectionality. Some staff have noted that the project gave them opportunities to talk about experiences they’ve had as women in the sector and haven’t had the opportunity to talk about at any other time. Most importantly, people have shown a willingness to listen and learn which attests to how valuable these interactions in the workplace are.

The Future

Despite CodeClan’s liquidation, The Young Women’s Movement were able to see the impact of their project on CodeClan’s final cohort of students who were transferred to Codebase, which had increased to an intake of 30% after the review in January. 

Based on the work that has already been done through the Young Women Code project, this is a format that really works for organisations and individuals to make positive changes for women in the sector. Going forward, The Young Women’s Movement are keen to continue offering these bespoke training packages and building relationships with even more organisations, meeting their needs with audits, workshops, language and policy reviews, and much more. They are also hoping that this next stage of development will allow them to partner with organisations that specialise in other related issues, such as managing menopause at work, to provide guidance and support for women through all stages of the journey through the workplace.

“It’s not something that is ever a tick box –  it’s something that you need to constantly be doing and reviewing because the inclusion landscape is changing all the time.”

Although the Young Women Code project has centred primarily on increasing gender equality in the Digital Tech Sector, Saffron reiterates the need for gender parity across all sectors, especially those that are male-dominated, such as Finance and Construction. With the format of this project working so well, there is hope that The Young Women’s Movement will be able to embed the same work across other sectors to make a difference in many more workplaces.

This post only touches on the full findings from the Young Women Code project. Please do take a look at the full report and findings here. 

If you are interested in receiving a bespoke package on how to improve gender equality in your organisation get in touch with The Young Women’s Movement: hello@youngwomenscot.org

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