Investigating the gender skills gap

You might be familiar with the skills gap. But who is it affecting most? The time is ripe for an investigation into the gender skills gap – find out how inequity is eroding training prospects in the office.

When was the last time you learnt a new workplace skill? Skills gap stats would suggest not very recently. Think tank McKinsey suggests that by 2030, 20% of the global workforce will be under-skilled for their jobs, plus up to one-third of work activities could be displaced forcing up to 375 million workers into new roles. Not to mention, in 2019 the CBI estimated that companies are losing around £63bn a year due to the lack of skills.

You may be wondering what these magical skills that we should be learning actually are? Well, unsurprisingly, digital tools and data literacy are top of the list. According to a 2017 study by the Brookings Institution, the use of digital tools has increased in 517 of 545 occupations since 2002 in the United States alone, with a striking upward trend in many lower-skilled occupations.

A report from the Financial Times shows a similar trend, claiming that just over half the UK population possess the digital skills required at work. A Forbes report concurs that data literacy and digital skills are the most important personal assets of the 2020 workplace.

So, it’s clear: the skills gap is a problem for both employers and employees, but what might not be so obvious is how the digital skills gap is disproportionately punishing women.

How does it affect women?

On average, women are gaining more qualifications than men, out-perform male students in their school examinations and, according to an unpublished NIACE study, are more likely to participate in adult learning than men. So why are women so underrepresented in jobs that utilise digital and data competency skills? To put it another way: women are doing so much learning, so why aren’t they learning the skills the workplace needs?

The resounding answer seems to be a lack of access to training in these specific IT and technology skills. However, there appears to be a spectrum of forms that this barrier can take.

On a physical level, less women have access to technology than men. Globally, the proportion of men using the internet in 2017 was 12 percent higher than women. Furthermore, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that there are 200 million fewer women than men who own a mobile phone. If women don’t have access to the tools needed to learn digital skills, it seems obvious that they will be harder hit by the skills gap.

What does this mean for the workplace?

Yet women who have access to technology and the internet have also demonstrated a lack of access to training in digital skills. Although women complete more apprenticeships and internships than men, men are more likely to be offered the longer apprenticeship schemes (a duration of 1 year or more) which are available in engineering and construction sectors. This leads to occupational segregation, as the male apprentices have a dramatically enhanced opportunity to develop skills needed for higher-level roles. This pattern continues to play out further down the line. In 2018, the Social Mobility Commission revealed that adult training is often only available for workers who are already highly paid or highly skilled.

Here would be a good time to draw attention to the widely quoted statistic from a Hewlett Packard internal report which states that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. This is supported by research which established that women remain working at a level below their competence due to social, structural or personal factors.

Combined with the increased opportunities that come with longer apprenticeships, this principle demonstrates the reality of a skills gap in engineering, construction and other IT and technology based roles which is heavily stacked in favour of men.

At this point, sceptics may point to the decreasing numbers of female students studying STEM subjects, claiming that with less women studying subjects which heavily utilise digital and data handling skills, it is inevitable that male students will be over-represented in internships and job roles where these skills are needed.

Deeply rooted causes

We might wonder why, when these skills are in such high demand, a study by PwC found that the number of females choosing STEM subjects at GCSE level dropped by 20,000 in 2018. According to a Stanford University study, the answer is in stereotyping and lack of representation. Alison Wynn surveyed 200 female cybersecurity professionals in the U.S. and the UK and found that gender stereotypes play a large role in discouraging women from pursuing a career in tech. When asked to rank skills needed for their job roles:

‘The female cybersecurity professionals surveyed ranked creativity and collaboration in the top five skills needed to thrive in the industry, alongside data analytics, analytical thinking and technical skills. Communicating the range of skills needed to thrive is paramount for successfully recruiting women, with 43% of survey respondents saying a lack of industry awareness is causing the cybersecurity skills gap.’

But does it really matter if there are less women in STEM or women aren’t being taught digital skills? Surely it doesn’t matter if these jobs are largely done by men? Turns out – it does.

A recent study by PwC and the Crowdfunding Institute showed that campaigns led by women across the world in 2015 and 2016 were 32% more successful than those led by men across a wide range of sectors, geography and cultures. This is supported by SHL research which recently found that women are substantially more likely to outperform men in 21 out of 27 leadership competency challenges

This has been demonstrated economically too; Kauffman Foundation research shows that tech companies led by women achieve a 35% higher return on investment than firms led by men and Forbes found that women tech entrepreneurs, despite having received 50% less venture capital funding, produce 20% higher revenues than their male equivalent.

To top it all off, a recent study by Nominet revealed that the UK economy could be boosted by a total of £2.6 billion a year if women were more involved in tech-based roles.


So, we have established that the gendered digital skills gap punishes both employee, employer and the economy as a whole. But what can we do about it?

To manage the gradual transition into an online workplace, employers need to take responsibility to re-skill, up-skill and job transition their workforce by opening up digital and data skills training and development to a wider candidate base. Prioritising investment in women appears to be the key to closing the digital skills gap, and there’s no time to lose. Online training is vital for up-skilling, therefore businesses aiming to reap the benefits of up-skilling female employees should be investigating the possibility of providing their employees with bespoke online training with demonstrable results. Manufacturing firms should prioritise providing the (largely female) workforce of administrators working in manufacturing with relevant and practical digital skills training. Additionally, technology companies can close the skills gap by offering female employees, apprentices or students leadership training, bespoke to their business to accelerate their progression through the company.

Representation from the top-down is vital.  Women currently hold just 5% of senior tech positions whereas they occupy over 20% of positions further down in the hierarchy. Those responsible for recruiting should ensure that women are interviewed for higher level positions as putting more women in leadership roles can help businesses to better understand how to recruit women, in addition to offering inspiration for young women who might consider a career in tech. Unconscious bias training is a hugely beneficial tool for anyone whose job involves recruitment, and online bias training tailored specifically to a business would inject recruitment decisions with objectivity and clarity, accelerate the closure of the skills gap and bring in more money for the business as a whole.

Women are being hit the hardest when it comes to the problem of the digital skills gap, but they may also be the most effective solution to closing it.

Keen to overcome the skills gap in your workplace? Get in touch and we can address it before it’s too late.