What this year’s A-level results mean for the UK tech industry

Record numbers of students are choosing to study computer science, but is enough being done to address the gender imbalance that exists in STEM subjects?

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This year’s A-level results show that a record number of students have been placed on Computer Science degree courses in the UK, according to the latest UCAS data. The data also show that the number of students placed on Computer Science degree is up 5% since last year 60% higher than 10 years ago.

Notably, the number of female students studying Computer Science at A-level has also risen, up 13% from 2020. In fact, the number of female students studying Computer Science A-level this year has increased by more than 350% since 2015.

Computer Science is the fastest growing STEM (Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering) A-level subject, with the number of students opting to study it growing at almost double the rate of all other subjects in the category. (Maths, Biology, and Chemistry remain three of the most popular subjects with students overall.)

amy sharif Peak

Amy Sharif, head of data science operations at decision intelligence and AI firm Peak.

Amy Sharif, head of data science operations at Peak, a decision intelligence and AI company, said that while this year’s results are “an amazing testament to all of the work which has been done over the last few years to encourage girls to study core STEM subjects," more work remains.

Male students are still more likely to study physics, mathematics, and computer science than their female counterparts, which Sharif said presents a problem: “Many degree courses specify these subjects as a requirement for entry and provide a career pathway into higher paid industry roles.”

What more can be done?

Across the UK, numerous charities and organisations have been working hard to reduce the gender gap in STEM subjects and encourage female students to pursue a tech careers. In 2020, the UK government published a report exploring the use of behavioural science to help girls engage with computing. The report found that despite outperforming boys in most GCSE STEM subjects, girls are less likely to choose certain STEM A level options.

“As our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology, girls’ under-representation in these STEM options is problematic on two fronts: the ever-widening national STEM skills shortage and increasing gender inequality in access to well-paid, high-status, influential careers,” the report said.

Sharif said that narrowing the gender gap in computer science is important because it will lead to better technology.

“Technology needs to be future proofed by ensuring the underlying design and algorithms used are not biased against certain groups of people," she said. "I think it’s vital to empower women to be part of this change, so they can, quite literally, build a better future for themselves and other women across all of the touchpoints that tech affects."

Sharif argues that a shortage of female role models remains a major barrier for some girls, as is a lack of understanding of how technology can bring about change.

“These are things we need to bring to life earlier in schools. Showing role models to young women as early as possible helps both counteract the societal norms and expectations for young women but can also give them confidence to pursue education where there is a bigger gender gap, since of course it’s not a question of competency,” she said.

Sharif also said that having a closer link between schools and industry would make a big difference, allowing female students to see clear connections between what they study and the STEM careers they could take up. And given the current pace of technological change, Sharif said it’s never been more important for employers to work with schools.

Are qualifications the only route into the industry?

While data from the 2021 A-levels showed that efforts to address the gender imbalance in STEM subjects is paying off, research has also shown that many young people avoid a career in technology due to misconceptions around entry requirements to the industry.

Digital and tech skills organisation QA surveyed 2,005 16–24-year-olds and found that 77% of respondents believe being good at maths and science is essential for a tech career. The research also found that 42% believe students need straight As to work in technology; 60% think a university education is necessary; 40% think that not studying computing at school or college is a barrier; 32% don’t think they are clever enough to work in technology.

While some tech careers do require more education — Sharif notes that anyone wanting to become a data scientist like her needs a university degree or a technical certificate — there are many jobs in tech that capitalise on different skill sets.

“Data science can oftentimes feel like an intimidating industry because everyone is super smart. All that means in practice is that there are a lot of people to learn from and to collaborate with,” Sharif said. “There is a lot of pressure placed on technical skill sets within the role, which end up creating barriers for entry that don’t need to exist."

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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