Senior Editor, UK
Published: 19 Apr 2021 15:30
The fall in the number of women participating in the global labour force is “troubling”, but enterprises could seize on this trend to help plug the cloud-related skills gaps in their companies, claims Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) vice-president of worldwide public sector, Max Peterson.
During the AWS online-only Public Sector Summit, Peterson called on companies to get more “creative about attracting talent” to prevent more women leaving the labour force, which is a situation that has noticeably worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“[Enterprises] need to be creative about attracting talent. And this includes diversity and equity as a priority. Covid-19 has added some urgency to this issue. According to the World Bank, less than half of all women participated in the global labour force in 2020. And that’s a decrease from 51% in 1990,” said Peterson.
“The US Bureau of Labour Statistics reports that 55% of all jobs lost between February and December of 2020 belong to women. And these stats are troubling, but they also present an opportunity. Because, quite simply, there are too many talented individuals from all walks of lives, who should have careers in cloud and technology,” he said.
The Summit Keynote also featured the input of Tarika Barrett, the newly appointed CEO of Girls Who Code, who shared some insights as to why the employment and education prospects of women appear to have been so disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“I am especially concerned for all our girls, but especially the ones [of colour] in particular, because I know that many of them have dropped out of school entirely. They have caregiving responsibilities or other responsibilities and they’re going fall behind in their studies,” said Barrett.
“These are inequities that we know persist into the workforce: women and especially women of colour have been disproportionately impacted by Covid and the economic downturn that we’re all experiencing.”
Based on her previous experience of working at the US Department of Education, she said the education system is also not set up to close the gender gap, and that problem has grown far worse during the pandemic, she continued.
“I’m so deeply committed and focused on figuring out how to expand this amazing [tech] career pipeline… and so [women] actually persist in it with their career,” said Barrett.
This is important, said Teresa Carlson, former vice-president of worldwide public sector and industries at AWS, because there is a sense that the progress made to-date on closing the gender divide in tech has stalled and is in fact reversing.
“We’ve got to figure out how to stop the bleeding here,” she said during the keynote, before inviting Barrett to share her take on what barriers are preventing women from thriving in the IT industry.
Generally speaking, there are widespread issues with internet and computer access for students across the US, with 12 million students reportedly without access to either. At the same time, more than a third of Girls Who Code’s black and Latinx students cannot a computer or high-speed wi-fi, she said. “And we know that some of our students don’t have the same level of digital fluency as other students, making it so difficult for them to keep up.”
In addition to this, having an interest in computer science and STEM subjects is also not enough to ensure girls pursue a career in technology. “It is so much deeper than just teaching STEM,” said Barrett. “Too many of the girls who fall in love with coding end up leaving the industry. They continue to encounter these systemic barriers when they have ‘made it’.
“The other part of this problem is are young women actually being supported once they get that first job in the tech industry? The cultures that exist are very much designed and set up for white men to succeed,” she said. “It is good companies are finally waking up, being reflective and looking at internal diversity and inclusion practices [to address this] but it’s not enough to see that – it has to translate into actual change.”
To address this, she said Girls Who Code are going to triple the number of free after school coding programmes it lays on for students over the next few years, and is intent on launching a series of workforce development and mentorship programmes that young women can draw support and strength from when working their way up the tech career ladder.
“So much of what our young women are up against is [developing that sense] that they actually belong. That they have a right to have a seat at the table,” said Barrett.
“Girls Who Code is not just teaching girls computer science. It is teaching them to lead and thrive in the tech industry, having been very aware of some of the barriers [that they] are going to encounter, and the fact that they can lean on this sisterhood and what they’ve learned …to be successful. On the company side, we know that there’s work to be done to make sure that they feel welcome,” she added.
AWS is playing its part to address this issue through its various recruitment and retraining skills programmes, as well as the support it offers universities and colleges around the world with providing students with opportunities to study for degree-level qualifications in cloud subjects.
As is the case for many businesses during the pandemic, the cloud giant had to pivot to an online delivery model for its training schemes, said Maureen Lonergan, director of training and certification at AWS, which has bolstered participation rates for these programmes.
“We actually trained hundreds of thousands more people last year than we thought we would due to the digital capabilities,” she told keynote attendees.
“All types of individuals. People that were in the workforce, people transitioning their skills, people who had no tech experience, business individuals who wanted to learn tech.”
There is a lot of appetite, she remarked, from enterprises that need people with tech skills to help them make the move from “traditional infrastructure” to cloud setups, with many wanting to retrain their existing talent, while others focus on bringing in entry-level staff to plug the gaps.
“[We’re] working with them to identify where they can bring in entry-level talent. How do we partner with them, what programs do we have, how are we supporting our customers? A lot of the customers that we work with want entry level talent. They have diversity goals as well and women in tech.”
Cloud-hosted education programmes
During the keynote it was also discussed how AWS’s technology is being used to underpin the delivery of cloud-related courses and other tech-focused education programmes by its own customers, including online education provider Pearson.
The company has developed and brought to market a diploma-level course in cloud, and its UK president, Rod Bristow, told the Summit’s attendees how embarking on its own cloud migration to AWS has informed its understanding of just how important cloud skills are to the wider economy.
“We began our cloud journey with AWS back in 2013 to provide educators and learners with high quality online digital services. Delivered in the cloud, we’ve been able to scale high-traffic periods around mid-terms and final exams, and create next-generation apps and develop new products like eText, our digital textbook alternative, and Revel, an interactive digital learning environment,” he said.
“We now employ 1,100 developers globally to build and support our online learning programs. While the cloud has helped power our internal transformation. We understand the importance of teaching cloud-based skills to help shape the future workforce.”
Particularly, as the demand for people with cloud skills is outpacing the rate at which people are developing them, which is something Pearson is seeking to address by adding to the opportunities for people to engage with cloud-related training programmes.
“Cloud computing skills are now vital, and are going to be in demand long into the future, [creating] a need for [a] cloud computing qualification. So just last year, we collaborated with AWS, educate to develop the first ever Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) National Diploma in cloud computing,” said Bristow.
BTEC Higher Nationals are work-related, globally recognised qualifications delivered in colleges, workplaces and universities in 50 countries. The qualifications are equivalent to the first two years of a UK college degree, and can lead either to a higher degree or directly to a job.
The BTECs are offered through Pearson’s network of more than 600 universities and colleges, confirmed Bristow, and the course content has been created with direct input from “cloud industry experts” to ensure it is tailored to what enterprises need from their cloud workers.
“And as more people achieve their BTECs, companies will have access to a wider pool of skilled cloud computing talent, to support the changing workforce. And this is only the beginning,” he said. “We’ll be creating more short, stackable courses with AWS that lead to a full degree with a range of university partners. And we’ll take the curriculum down to high school level too.”
With the range and availability of cloud training opportunities on course to grow through initiatives like this, the pressure should be on enterprises to do what they can to foster a supportive, diverse and inclusive working environment where people with cloud skills feel compelled to stay working there.
Particularly in light of figures compiled by Girls Who Code and Accenture that show 50% of women leave the tech industry by the age of 35.
“All of these things are intuitive and makes sense about why folks will stay in a given organisation, we’re talking about loving where you work, strong and effective managers, and the ability to grow within a given organisation, competitive pay, mentorship and support. This is going to be the thing that keeps anyone regardless of gender,” said Barrett.
“[Companies] are not designed with women in mind and especially women of colour. And this is what we have to all focus on… because it means we have to dismantle existing systems… and develop more inclusive ones where we know we can help women actually prevail,” she said.
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