With each passing day technology plays a more important role in the world. It’s near impossible to go a day in your life without relying on it. As the digital sphere expands in its capability and usefulness, we entrust more and more of our personal details and everyday activities to it. However, very few understand the implications or the true nature of doing so. It is for this reason it is so important to diminish the current inequalities in technology and digital.
The importance of increasing the number of people skilled in digital lies in the fact that with technological advancements comes a change in the job market and the economy. The Skills Funding Agency has estimated that in the next ten to twenty years 90% of jobs will require digital skills. With robotics and technology able to complete low skilled and repetitive jobs such as manufacturing cars it shifts the desired skill set of an employable person, and those who do not learn digital skills risk unemployment or low-income jobs. The Centre for Economics and Business Research have found that the average person will increase their earnings by 3 to 10% by acquiring digital skills.
The case for learning digital skills is easy to see. Nevertheless, the statistics show that we are falling short of having 90% of the population being computer literate. The inequality of digital skills becomes apparent when looking at different groups of the population. The University of Warwick investigated female representation in STEM and showed that although 56% of university students between the years of 2012 and 2015 were female, only 17.4% of computer science undergrads were. This trend continues through most digital STEM subjects, with only 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates being women. More worrying yet is that only 13% of the STEM workforce at this time were women, accounting for a potential £2 billion loss in contributions to the UK economy that would come from women participating more fully in STEM employment. To correct this imbalance, we must focus on primary and secondary school learning and how change is needed to inspire and facilitate more women entering higher education and careers in STEM.
The most recent example of inequality of opportunity that springs to mind has been in education. With the pandemic forcing classes to be taught from home, it has come to light that a child’s access to education has been hindered if they do not possess either a laptop or iPad and a reliable broadband network. This led to the Department for Education providing computer devices to disadvantaged Year 10 students, an estimated 200,000 devices have been requested according to The Independent. This enlightens us to just how many children and teenagers do not have easy access to a computer unless they are at school. The lack of technological resources has only deepened the inequality in the education system.
This is not a new issue. When I was at school, I remember I.T. qualifications, in this case CLAiT (Computer Literacy and Information Technology) level 2, being more of a box ticking exercise. There was no encouragement or aspiration to take your knowledge further, in fact the opposite: you were discouraged from taking Level 3. On the school open day, I was shown the ‘computer rooms’ with their outdated technology and hardware. My brother’s school however, five minutes down the road, was a shining example for STEM subjects, offering them at both GCSE and A-Level. Both schools shared the same prestige, the same funding and the same high achieving levels of academia in their students; the only noticeable difference being mine was an all-girls school and my brother’s was mixed.
Gender is not the only inequality present in digital skills; although improving, there is still a noticeable difference in the accessibility to broadband or internet. The issue lies more in the quality of internet available rather than access itself. The UK has developed internet access to 96% of its population, up from just 55% in 2006, according to the Office of National Statistics. But whilst London boasts of up-and-coming 5G and superfast fibre broadband, the further north you go the likelihood is you will be facing 3G at best. Inequality of wealth also plays a large part in a person’s ability to learn digital skills, with the average spent on a single computer ranging from £200 to £1,500 it can be seen as a costly investment; there will be households who cannot afford to invest. In these cases, it is even more important that schools play their part and allow regular access to computers for students to learn on. Some schools, including state schools, provide students at GCSE level and up with either an iPad or laptop which they return at the end of their studies. A practice that may be difficult for all schools to implement but shows great foresight.
The UK’s future in the digital world needs as many people from as many different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and beliefs interested as possible. A strong case for this is the need to avoid bias in AI learning, to prevent further injustice and inequality in the digital world. Access, skills and motivation will drive the UK’s mission to increase digital skills and the below examples are just a few innovations occurring to correct the imbalance.
The UK Government’s Digital Strategy has now mandated coding to be taught in primary and secondary schools since 2014 through the National Curriculum. There are Government agency schemes such as the CyberFirst scholarship programme run by the National Cyber Security Centre for 11 to 17 year olds, to learn about cyber security in their summer holidays; the programme even hosts a girls’ competition to help close the divide. Out in the US, Kode with Klossy is a great example of taking a lead on helping women into STEM. The scholarship programme is a summer camp for young women to teach them how to code, and inspire them to pursue STEM studies and careers. However, whilst these programmes help the cause of upskilling in digital and technology, more is still needed.
By allowing inequalities in digital skills to continue now, we risk deepening inequalities faced by people in the future. For that reason, it’s never been more important to educate all demographics of the importance in developing their own digital skills. Whether this is a push from government departments, charities, public figures or teachers, we can all play a role in ensuring a strong digital workforce and economy in the UK for all.