F3-PRO3-2 - Computing degree apprenticeships: An opportunity to address gender imbalance in the IT sector?

3. Research Full Paper
Sally Smith1 , Ella Taylor-Smith1, Khristin Fabian1, Matthew Barr2, Tessa Berg3, David Cutting4, James Paterson5, Tiffany Young6, Mark Zarb6
1 Edinburgh Napier University
2 University of Glasgow
3 Heriot-Watt University
4 Queens University Belfast
5 Glasgow Caledonian University
6 Robert Gordon University

This full paper explores the potential for new apprenticeship degrees to encourage more women into computing degrees and the IT sector. In the UK, women are currently under-represented on computing courses. Meanwhile the IT industry requires more computing graduates, in general, and specifically more highly-skilled women to create appropriate products and systems. The UK has recently introduced apprenticeship computing degrees, where the apprentice is a work-based employee. In some models, apprentices spend 20% of their time studying in Higher Education and also gain credits through work-based learning; in others, apprentices spend blocks of time in Higher Education and the workplace. These degrees offer a new and innovative route to studying computing at university. Largely funded by employers, apprentices are salaried and their fees are paid, paving the way for more people to study for a degree. The work context enables apprentices to keep their jobs (if relevant) or to move into IT roles and start a computing degree without necessarily having computing qualifications; the degrees have no upper age limit. Apprenticeship degrees have been introduced to increase skills levels through a close partnership between universities and employers. This is particularly important in IT, where the sector is expanding and employers are looking for both good technical and personal skills. Employers collaborate in the design of the degrees and apprentices graduate with extensive work experience.

A survey was conducted with apprentices beginning a degree in: Cyber Security, Data Science, IT Management for Business, or Software Engineering/Development. Participants were asked about their routes into the apprenticeship and IT; the skills they possessed and those they wanted to develop. Apprentices at five universities in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland completed the survey, on paper or online (n=93). The analysis addressed the research question: Are there differences in the motivations and paths into computing apprenticeship degrees between women and men?

The results revealed a less severe gender imbalance than with comparative on-campus degrees, but this varied greatly across the subjects, from Data Science, where 55% of respondents identified as female and IT Management for Business (40% female), to Software Development (27% female) and Cyber Security (only 11% female). Apprentices were more likely to have started the degree at least a few years after leaving school and this was especially true for women: 83% of female respondents were over 21, compared to 63% of males. More female respondents had also been with their current employer for over five years (57% compared to 33%). However, women were slightly more likely to have joined their employers in order to start the apprenticeship (39% to 28%).

This initial work identifies opportunities to recruit women onto computing degree apprenticeships, for example by targeting women who have started careers. It also highlights that there is a particular challenge recruiting women into certain subject areas, especially Cyber Security, but also Software Development. Exploring our respondents’ motivations for choosing their subjects illuminates the gender-balance challenge and indicates how degree apprenticeships can encourage more women into the IT sector.