The Digital Skills Gap Is a Wider Chasm for Women to Jump—But Closing It Benefits Everyone

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As the technology around us increasingly resembles the stuff of science-fiction, it’s no surprise that jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are exploding. Employment in STEM occupations has grown six times faster than employment in non-STEM jobs over the last decade (24.4% vs 4% growth respectively)—with computer occupations making up almost 45% of all STEM jobs in 2015.

And it’s not just STEM roles that require technical skills anymore. A recent study investigating the 545 occupations that represent 90% of all U.S. jobs found that 517 had seen a dramatic uptick in the use of digital tools since 2002. Across virtually every industry, at virtually every level, digital literacy is becoming essential.

But for women, this shift represents a bigger challenge—and a bigger opportunity.

Globally, women are less likely to use the internet than men, even in many developed nations. And this gap is widening, growing from an 11% divide in 2013 to 12% in 2016. Combined with a range of societal and educational factors that can hold women back from pursuing STEM and computing courses, the increasing emphasis on advanced digital skills in the workplace may leave many women at a significant disadvantage—widening the chasm they have to leap to advance in their careers.

Crossing this chasm, however, has big implications for women and society at large—helping close the gender pay gap, boost the economy, and more.

The path less supported

Despite countless studies proving it to be unfounded, the myth that men are intrinsically better suited for STEM roles is persistent. This stereotype can trickle down through the media, school system, and even familial relationships to convince women from a young age that STEM roles are not for them.

A recent report from Microsoft found that girls in grades five through 12 were less likely to receive encouragement about going into STEM from their fathers, as opposed to their mothers or teachers. Girls who did receive encouragement from their dad were more likely to take computing, engineering, and technology classes in high school. The prevailing stereotype of STEM roles as inherently masculine makes male encouragement especially significant for young women—but may also be contributing to fewer fathers offering it.

Even in the classroom, girls may not receive the guidance and support they need. The report found that approximately one in three girls in middle school and high school don’t feel supported by teachers and classmates in STEM classes. Many say they’re embarrassed to ask questions because they feel like they’re the only ones who don’t understand—especially if they lack encouragement from parents and teachers.

Compounded by the fact that women are more likely to underestimate their digital skills than their male counterparts, it’s easy to see why these educational paths may feel like unwelcoming and unnatural territory.

A model for success

Another significant barrier that the Microsoft report highlights is scarcity of female role models in STEM, compared to men. When girls aren’t exposed to female role models, they can struggle to picture themselves in a similar role. This might explain why 30% of girls and almost 40% of adult women automatically picture a man when asked to describe an engineer, scientist, mathematician, or computer programmer.

But when girls do encounter women in STEM professions, 61% say they feel empowered when pursuing STEM activities, compared to 44% without a female STEM role model in their life. This suggests that as more women enter these fields, a domino effect may be created—encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.

And it isn’t just women that will benefit from this.

Good for women, good for companies, good for the economy

In a 2017 report, Accenture found that increased digital fluency and tech immersion among women will be two of the most powerful accelerators to closing the gender pay gap—shrinking it by as much as 35% by 2030. That equates to a $3.9 trillion annual increase to women’s salaries.

And that salary bump has big implications. A recent study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that if women earned as much as men, the poverty rate among working women would be cut in half—and the U.S. economy would get a $512.6 billion boost.

But the benefits of increased female representation in STEM and computing roles extend beyond financial incentives. Diverse teams have been shown to be more innovative and have higher morale than homogenous groups, and companies with gender-diverse executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform male-dominated ones.

Closing the chasm

As the importance of digital skills in the workplace increases, it’s vital that men and women alike start reskilling or upskilling now—before the gap gets too wide to jump.

With 54% of companies reporting that they’ve already lost a competitive advantage due to the shortage of digital talent, women with in-demand tech and digital skills have a great opportunity to get their foot in the door and pursue an exciting, well-paid career. But they need to be prepared to smash through some stereotypes and other obstacles along the way.  

Accenture found that 68% of female undergraduates acknowledge the importance of taking proactive steps now, like taking computer courses or attending coding boot camps. Doing so can boost future earning power, help you stay relevant at work, and even open the door to a whole new career.

Even among women who choose not to go into tech, learning these types of skills at any stage in your career can still aid advancement and lead to higher-paid jobs. Accenture’s research revealed that 37% of women who achieve senior management positions at work—regardless of industry—successfully utilize STEM skills to advance their career.

If you’re ready to leap across the digital skills chasm and find support and encouragement at every step, Trilogy can help. Explore boot camps near you today.

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