With 1.2 million employees, the NHS is by far the biggest employer in England.
According to NHS Digital’s latest workforce statistics, 935,772 of those employees were women, which is more than three quarters of the workforce.
In recent years, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of women who are hospital doctors, for example, which is extremely positive.
But in my experience, one of the areas where women continue to be under-represented is right here in my own sector – the wonderful world of technology.
It’s a real issue for me when any organisation’s staff doesn’t properly reflect the population it services, whether that’s in terms of gender, ethnicity, age or any other demographic.
When designing products and services we need a diverse workforce that can put themselves in the shoes of the people who will be using them. Half of the people using our products are women, so it is vital that women are involved in the development process.
Why are women under-represented in technology roles?
Some of that is about role models – it’s always easier to enter a career if we can see someone like us already doing that job.
Some of it is because young women and girls aren’t as likely to study STEM projects as young men and boys, and some of it is because, historically, technology experts haven’t properly shouted about the amazing diversity of roles across the industry.
No longer a geeky fringe subject, we interact with technology from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. Working in technology offers the opportunity to make a real impact on people’s lives, particularly when you work on national projects which affect the whole population.
Roles in technology are really varied and they provide opportunities for bright, skilled people with a range of experience. If people and relationships are your thing, then we need user researchers, if you love maths and coding, then we need developers and if creativity is your thing, then being a designer in technology might be for you.
My first role in tech came about by circumstance rather than design, but had I realised then the opportunities, variety, creativity and practical skills I would use every day, then I would have definitely planned my career this way.
I started out working on an IT helpdesk, where we not only offered advice and guidance, but also built PCs for our customers. I was the first and only female in my department and I didn’t yet have the specialist technology skills that I would later develop. As a result, lots of the men underestimated me, not realising that I love a challenge.
Nearly 45 percent of the NHS Digital workforce is female, but women are under-represented in higher grades
It became important to me to prove that I could not only be as good as them, but better. I committed myself both to the role and to a variety of self-learning and development opportunities. But during that time I also happened to fall in love with technology and I knew that this was where I wanted to focus my career.
At NHS Digital, we recognise the need to encourage and support great women to have great careers in technology. We do this in a range of ways, from “growing our own” through apprenticeships and graduate training programmes to investing in the women in our workplace and ensuring that it’s a great place to work.
As the chair of the organisation’s Women’s Network, this is close to my heart. The best piece of career advice I have ever been given is that if you want to achieve great things, you have to start by building a great team. I am lucky that the network is full of talented, inspiring women who are committed to making NHS Digital the best it can be in terms of supporting women to achieve their potential and to be the best that they can be.
Working towards better gender balance
One of the great things about the network is that it helps to hold the organisation to account and ensure that it is honest, both in terms of what it has already achieved for gender parity and what still needs to be done.
For example, 44 per cent of our workforce is female, but women are still under-represented in higher grades and over-represented in less senior roles.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #balanceforbetter, and here at NHS Digital, just as across our sector, we need to achieve a better gender balance across all levels of the organisation by showing younger women the scope of what technology jobs offer. If we can achieve this, the sky really is the limit.
Wendy Clark is the executive director of product development at NHS Digital in England.