Lancashire must inspire more girls into technology to realise its potential, says economic leader

Lancashire could miss out on harnessing the benefits of the digital age if it fails to get more girls into the technology workforce, the head of the county’s economic partnership warns.

By Tim Gavell
Tuesday, 8th March 2022, 12:30 pm

Despite the significant growth across many digital sectors over recent years, according to TechNation’s current Diversity and Inclusion report, only 19 per cent of the UK’s tech workforce are women.

And while Lancashire is broadly in line with this national average, the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership’s chair Debbie Francis OBE, speaking on International Women’s Day, believes that the county could miss out on major economic opportunities, unless more women are encouraged to pursue technology-based careers.

These include the anticipated £5bn of investment set to be generated by the National Cyber Force HQ when it locates to Samlesbury, the potential growth in the Digital Health and Medtech sectors – set be to be driven by assets such as the Lancaster Health Innovation Campus - and the huge opportunities which could be unlocked in specialist subsectors such as 5G, Future Mobility, Cleantech, Agritech and Electech.

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UCLan's Engineering Innovation Centre, Preston

The LEP is also concerned that region’s Advanced Manufacturing and Industry 4.0 offer – which will get a massive boost from assets such the new Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) North West, UCLan’s trailblazing Engineering Innovation Centre, and the ReDCAT alternative technologies centre in East Lancashire – could be held back unless more is done to address the gender disparity in technology careers.

In response, the LEP has reaffirmed its support for several key initiatives aimed specifically at girls and young women which promote technology-based careers, STEM subjects, and digital skills, across the county.

These include InnovateHer, a partnership between the LEP, BAE Systems, and the Lancashire Careers Hub, which brings ‘real world’ technological innovation directly into Lancashire classrooms. BAE is also sponsoring the programme as part of a wider £300,000 investment in promoting digital skills in the region.

Launched last autumn, and delivered through a range of online lessons and ‘bite sized’ online tech talks and presentations, InnovateHer has already engaged with over 350 girls - from secondary schools and youth clubs in Blackpool, Preston, Chorley and Hyndburn - who have enrolled in over 1,000 courses. It is looking to engage with 4,500 young people across the county this year.

Debbie Francis OBE, chair of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership

Another project is Cyber Girls First, a programme delivered by a national charity which aims to dispel the idea that only boys can succeed in IT and tech careers. It provides direct engagement with successful female technology professionals, business owners and digital entrepreneurs.

Drawing on the organisation’s pre-pandemic expertise of effectively running 30 such in-person events across the country, Cyber Girls First has announced details of its first, local, physical event at Blackpool Winter Gardens on March 23.

Featuring female technology experts from a wide range of sectors, including telecoms, finance, law, government, gaming, software development and coding, the speakers will also include a female UK rocket scientist now based in the USA.

Over 100 young women are due to attend the Cyber Girls First event, drawn from schools and academies from across Blackpool and Fleetwood.

Tha launch of a £300,000 scheme from BAE Systems along with with the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership, Create Education and InnovateHer, to create a new programme to inspire young people about digital and tech careers

Lancashire is also currently hosting its second TeenTech Festival, a six-week programme of virtual and interactive sessions, all delivered online, which last year engaged with 850 Lancashire pupils aged 8-13.

Running until May, the award-winning TeenTech initiative has a strong emphasis on female participation.

Many sessions are specifically designed to capture girls’ imagination and encourage them to explore creative technologies (such as computer game design, animation and film making) as well as promoting key tech-related topics like digital health, sustainable transport, and the environment.

All these schemes are all backed by the county’s Digital Skills Partnership, an initiative established with the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport, that brings together Lancashire’s business, training and education community to improve digital skills and boost employment opportunities within the technology sector. They are also supported by the Lancashire Careers Hub, which is working with all 156 secondary schools and colleges across Lancashire to develop inspirational careers programme.

Schoolchildren at a TeenTech event

Both the Digital Skills Partnership and Lancashire Careers Hub sit within the LEP-supported Lancashire Skills and Employment Hub.

Debbie Francis said: “In spite of the huge efforts of many within the training, education and recruitment sector, good work undertaken by several industry bodies, and numerous government skills strategies and national programmes, the proportion of women working within technology roles in the UK has stubbornly remained at around the same 15-20 per cent level for some years now.

“And while Lancashire’s workforce reflects this national picture, I believe we as a region are at particular risk of missing out on billions of future investment, and thousands of new jobs, if we don’t begin to close this gender gap.

“That’s because despite the major opportunities offered by increased digitalisation within many of Lancashire’s traditional industries, the rapid rise of sectors like Medtech, Cleantech, and Electech, and the work we’ve undertaken to bring the likes of the AMRC, the LHIC, and the National Cyber Force HQ to the county, we will need many more women with technology skills to maximise the potential these and other assets offer.

“Or in other words, if we want to make the most of our opportunity to become a true leader within dynamic, fast-growth sectors like Cybersecurity, Digital Health, Low Carbon, Esports and 5G, we need to be inspiring more girls and young women to consider STEM pathways and technology careers.

“That’s why I’m keen to use this International Women’s Day to highlight, celebrate and promote some of the excellent programmes our Digital Skills Partnership and Careers Hub are leading across the county. It’s also fitting that this year’s IWD theme is ‘break the bias’, as that is exactly what these initiatives are designed to do when it comes to perceptions of women working in technology sectors or within digital roles in other industries.”

For more details of Innovate Her, Cyber Girls First, and the Lancashire Teen Tech Festival, visit https://www.lancashireskillshub.co.uk/digital-skills-partnership/

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