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To get more women in tech, we need to start at school

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Whenever I meet a startup I always ask what subjects they studied back at school. The range is as wide as the roles in our tech sector, but one subject dominates: maths.

Given the weakness in the school curriculum on computing and coding it’s not surprising that so many of our young tech entrepreneurs did programming as a hobby but had a strong tendency towards maths at school.

Maths is a man’s world

The subject came up in the House of Commons last month. My colleague Jenny Chapman MP, highlighted that two thirds of A level maths students are male.

Addressing tech’s gender diversity problem

This divide is even noticeable in primary schools, where more boys than girls are assessed for the top level in maths at the end of primary school.

In response, the children’s minister quoted the OECD’s programme for international student assessment.

This showed that girls have as much confidence as boys at the age of five but begin to lose it as they proceed through the education system, and that that contributes to feelings of anxiety about maths.

Closing the gap

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There is a real worry that maths is too often seen as a boy’s subject.

To tackle this, the Government is placing hope in 30 maths hubs across the country to promote best practice in teaching, to close the gap between girls and boys.

With a new school computer science curriculum just introduced we need to be alert to this gender gap in maths and understand it.

If we have to set up computer science hubs in future to tackle a similar gender gap in computer science it would be a failure. We need to alert to the potential gender divide from the beginning.

Currently only 17 per cent of the tech workforce is female and this is going down each year by 0.5 per cent, according to girls education campaign Little Miss Geek.

Programmes like Little Miss Geek and Teen Tech help enthuse young people but fundamentally we need to make sure that schools and, ultimately, the Government are monitoring take up and acting early.

Rise of women doctors is a model for success

The concern about gender imbalance in subjects is not new. There have been some real successes – notably there are more medical students who are women than men.

We need to make sure founders engage with schools and target support to young women who are half their future customers

When I was a school girl in the 1980s the subject of concern was engineering.

As a girls’ school we were a target recruiting ground.

But, it was boring.

Visits to university campuses; men in suits telling us it would be good to go into engineering but with little understanding of how to enthuse teenage girls.

Last year Women in Tech supported a networking event I organised with 50 young women from Hackney schools. The tech women were inspirational and the best advocates for their profession.

Little Miss Geek founder Belinda Parmar was one of a number of women who were real life role models for the young women.

Engagement is key

The enthusiasm and energy of the Shoreditch tech entrepreneurs bodes well for the recruitment of enthusiastic young students.

We just need to make sure that these enthusiasts engage with schools and target support to young women who are half their future customers.

Meg Hillier is the Member of Parliament  for Hackney South and Shoreditch

As part of the launch of our new print edition, we’ll be publishing a series of guest columns and commentary celebrating women in tech. Got something to add? Get in touch with our editorial team.

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