Skills and Talent
Closing the Digital Skills Gap: Battle of the Sexes or Battle of the Generations?
10 March 2023 • 6 min read
Does success in digital belong to the young and the male? We'd all love to say the answer's no, but the stats aren't quite matching up. Women still only account for 26.7% of the tech-force, while over 50s make up a fifth of the numbers.
Is it industry bias and the "young male coders" stereotype limiting how we recruit, or does the issue lie with employers' attitudes to upskilling?
Today, people are having to become more digitally literate just to live their daily lives; from the way we communicate and socialise, to the way we work and learn. The fast-paced technological changes of recent years mean that, in the new digital workplace, employees can easily fall behind. This is already being evidenced in the over 55s, many of whom are being held back from pre-retirement career changes by their lack of digital skills. Nearly a fifth of this age group feel they lack sufficient digital skills to even succeed in their current job roles - let alone new ones.
Meanwhile, research shows that females only hold 26.7% of tech related roles; with various structural inequalities impacting their opportunities to learn digital skills and pursue tech careers. So, how do we work towards an equitable digital society, that gives everyone the opportunity to become digitally literate? And how can upskilling these digitally-neglected employees benefit your business?
In February 2023, we gathered a panel of experts to explore what that digital divide looks like; focusing on how supporting your workers to upskill will maximise your workforce and create a more streamlined way of working. For those who missed it, we’re rounding up the highlights of that conversation below.
31% of over 55s want to improve their digital skills to ensure they have another career or role before they retire.
When we look at the age group of Generation X (1965-1980), we have to regard the societal view as well as the business view. Gen X was the first ‘digital youth’; with the 1980s and 1990s being the era of cyberspace, inspiring the young generation to engage with an exciting new digital future. However, the landscape changed in the noughties, marking the advent of social media and the portability of tech in netbooks - it was no longer about cool tech, but about creating a new digital language and culture.
With the cyberspace execs settling into careers and families, this new digital community belonged to the native youth who accepted the tech norms and behaviours organically, with Gen X playing catch up to relearn and upskill at pace.
Unfortunately, this societal perception of Gen X being “left behind” has led to businesses not investing in upskilling because of the low expectations of their abilities, which results in a ‘perma-frost’ of 50-70 yr olds stuck in a corporate limbo without progression, development or opportunity. To take positive action, Richard Kuti (Inclusion Lead, AND Digital) believes we must first acknowledge that things are not fair and equal for this generation, with opportunities not fairly distributed, and then address the imbalance and under-representation. We need to actively recruit those who are older and want to join or rejoin the tech industry, and debunk the myth of Gen X having no interest in furthering their careers:
“Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not”
Women currently hold only 26.7% of tech-related jobs.
The stigma around STEM starts early in education, with 35% of girls vs 80% of boys studying these subjects beyond GCSE, leading to double the number of male university STEM graduates vs female. To change these statistics, we need to continuously challenge gender roles and the culture surrounding them, as well as create new pathways into tech-focused careers.
To attract a wider talent pool, Victoria Tomlinson (CEO, Next-Up) believes that businesses should stop recruiting purely from a tech mindset, and instead focus on the societal impact that the tech drives. By creating a relationship with the impact of the role, rather than the tech being the means to the end, the language becomes more palatable and accessible to under-represented genders and age groups. There is a welcome and fast-growing trend for ‘CV-less recruitment’, where the focus is upon life skills, capabilities and experience, rather than specific coding and platform experience. This movement significantly widens the net, to include those from a more disadvantaged position or background.
When we look at the language around tech roles, and how it can deter female engagement, it’s interesting to look at the historical shift in culture over the past 100 years. As Heledd Straker (People Evolution Senior Consultant, AND Digital) points out, Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer and a pioneer for technology, and the majority of tech roles were held by women as they were non-manual and required focus and dexterity. However, as the business value of software engineering began to emerge, men changed the narrative to dominate the industry, the pinnacle of which was the ‘tech bros’ decade in 2010, and James Damore’s open letter to colleagues at Google insisting that “neuroticism” is why there is a “lower number of women in high stress jobs''. The national gender pay gap is 11.6%, which is an exasperating statistic in itself, but this is further compounded in the tech industry, with the gap widening to 16%. Meanwhile, 57% of women in tech jobs say they experience gender based discrimination at work, compared to 10% of men. it’s clear that not only do we need to change the language, but also the culture and what success means.
The measurement of success in tech roles should not be about rewarding those who shout the loudest, but about acknowledging the imposter syndrome that comes with age and gender, and taking an equitable approach to upskilling and career support.
“This is not rewarding excessive confidence, but rewarding courage and overcoming barriers”
60% of over 55s have not received digital upskilling from their employer.
When we challenge how we upskill our people, we hold the responsibility of who gets that opportunity, and more importantly - why? Digital upskilling is seen as an investment, so the lack of it for an older generation is due to the perception of potential and longevity at that age. By disregarding the ‘invisible cloak of age’ in society, we can marry experience with skills to create new opportunities: “Any manager should be seeking to get the most out of their team’s skills, regardless of age and gender” Richard Kuti (Inclusion Lead, AND Digital)
As Victoria states, age is the last pillar of diversity that businesses need to include in their diversity inclusion programs. However, there is also a lack of perceived opportunity to ask for upskilling, stemming from a mindset and confidence issue. To overcome this, society needs to adapt the culture so that it becomes less overwhelming. By defining ‘levels’ of digital literacy and making the language of digital skills relevant to people's roles, we focus on what they want to achieve and how they can improve, rather than focusing on tech as the universal goal:
“It’s encouraging a mindset that says, “This is what I need to do. These are the skills I need. And this is where I'm going to learn about it.” Anyone with a brain and ability can make an impact, regardless of age or gender”.
For further information and resources, you can find support at:
Next-Up: Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing.
Future Learn: From custom courses, to learning for thousands of employees, Future Learn will work with you to create the best learning solution for your budget.
FutureDotNow: The FutureDotNow coalition brings together organisations that want to work together to accelerate the digital upskilling of their employees, customers and wider community.
LSIPs: UK Chambers of Commerce are convening businesses, training providers, funders and a wide range of local stakeholders to plan for the skills needed to boost local economies and improve opportunities for individuals.