Uniting Greater Manchester around diversity

By Victoria Knight, 8th March 2021

Victoria Knight of BAE Systems Applied Intelligence & Co Chair of the Greater Manchester Cyber Advisory Group explains why greater gender diversity must be an important part of Greater Manchester’s drive to become a world leading digital city-region

Scrolling through my emails this morning, one news nugget leapt out at me. The RSA has awarded Professor Sarah Gilbert a medal for her work on the Oxford coronavirus vaccine

Previously given to the likes of Winston Churchill for helping win the Second World War and Tim Berners-Lee for inventing the internet, the award is, I hope, the first of many accolades heading Professor Gilbert’s way in the months ahead.

Let’s face it, the pandemic has taught us the value of many things but looming large is surely the importance of research, science, technology and innovation in all our lives. From human research in the lab to the cutting-edge biotech fuelling the rapid development of vaccines and anti-viral medications, humanity will be forever grateful.

No city limits

Of course, Greater Manchester is hardly unfamiliar with the power of science and technological breakthroughs. British computer scientist Alan Turing worked at the University of Manchester where he made key contributions in artificial intelligence. And more recently, in 2010, University of Manchester professors, Sir Andrew Geim and Sir Kostya Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on graphene.

This rich heritage helps explain why the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has placed such emphasis on being recognised as a world leading digital city-region. It is right to do so. Effective use of technology can help revolutionise the quality of life for citizens and help unleash new ways to deliver services.

Check out how Barcelona created digital trust networks to support at-risk elderly citizens or how Athens built an online platform – synAthina – to bring together people who wanted to find a way to help others in the community. Kansas City has even passed a law requiring its local government to use data in decision-making, irrespective of which political party is in charge.

More still to do

These are just a few examples – there are plenty of others – but they help serve as a vivid reminder of the potential which exists across digital advances and local government. But of course it’s not just about technology – it comes down to people too. And this International Women’s Day, while of course we celebrate the achievements of women across Greater Manchester and beyond, we also need to redouble our efforts to break down barriers and encourage more women into the tech and cyber industries.

A quick glance through the latest statistics shows the scale of the task still ahead. For some time now, women have been underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) university courses and occupations and that continues today, with 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK being female. When it comes to students studying computer sciences related degrees, only 19% were female, and similarly, the percentage of female students studying engineering and technology degrees was only 19% of the total students between 2017 and 2018.

Action stations

As the mother of two daughters such statistics makes me wince, but also make me more determined. Science, technology and cyber are fast growing sectors that have a wealth of opportunity. An estimated 3.5 million cyber jobs are expected to remain unfilled global in 2021! Women have just as much talent, foresight, skills and ability, to work in these fields and if they do, the end result is likely to be far stronger.

That’s because diversity of approaches, points of view and thinking contributes towards improved performance in both the public and private sectors. Diverse teams help encourage innovation and new ways of problem solving, and also offer a variety of skills to meet changing needs. And certainly, as Greater Manchester and indeed the world seeks to Build Back Better after the horrors of the pandemic, we need the best and brightest to be at decision-making tables and this only occurs when organisations are truly representative of the societies they represent and serve.

So what do we need to do? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Identify strong role models. The good news is they don’t get any better than Professor Gilbert.

  2. Encourage male allies. Men need to be included in Diversity and Inclusion initiatives as this will help them understand the challenges women face and what needs to change.

  3. Leadership buy-in. While leaders need to believe in the issues, they also need to develop a diverse range of people who can step into their role.

  4. Focus on who is coming next. Girls start to lose interest in STEM aged 12 - 15 – we need to break down stereotypes and encourage more participation in STEM programmes.

  5. Update career talks. Don’t ask students “what do you want to be when you grow up?” but instead focus on “what kinds of problems would you like to solve?” This will help encourage greater consideration for technology and cyber security options.

Look, this type of change is clearly not going to happen overnight. I mean, International Women’s Day itself was launched by the United Nations back in 1975 – a testament to the deep rooted challenges we are facing here.

Nonetheless I am not disheartened. We are making progress. Greater Manchester is a dazzling beacon for so many things – science, digital ecosystem, football, academia – the list is endless. Soon, perhaps even in time for next year’s International Women’s Day, we can add gender diversity in tech to this list.

Let’s get to work.

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