Tech careers for women: what are the main roles and how do you retrain?

The tech sector is growing, but a lack of understanding about roles in the industry may be preventing women from joining. So what are the jobs, where are they, and how can women get started?

Brown-haired young woman in a library, thinking.HM98CD Brown-haired young woman in a library, thinking.
Jobs in tech permeate every sector, and many women are discovering they don’t need a maths or tech background to reinvent themselves. Photograph: Photononstop/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo
Jobs in tech permeate every sector, and many women are discovering they don’t need a maths or tech background to reinvent themselves. Photograph: Photononstop/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 10.49 EST

Amid the scorn heaped upon the use of “Fatima”, the ballet dancer central to a government advertising campaign (it pictured her in her ballet clothes, with “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber”), an important point was missed, say tech professionals.

A lack of tech knowhow is costing the UK £63bn a year, according to the CBI, and there are an estimated 600,000 vacancies in digital.

Jobs in tech permeate every sector, and many women, from midwives to teachers to actors and career-break mothers, are discovering they don’t need a maths or tech background to retrain and reinvent themselves. Many say new tech skills give them status, more balance and a professional future, rather than scrabbling around for work in a frantic jobs market.

“We’ve got a ballet dancer from the West End retraining with us,” says a delighted Amy Golding, a former English graduate and chief executive of tech recruiter Opus Talent Solutions, who’s created a new course to help people train from scratch as junior developers, out of sheer frustration at the shortage.

Some 40% of people on the 12-week course, which costs £3,500, have an arts or humanities degree, and a quarter have no degree, and ages range from late teens to people in their mid 50s. She wants to demystify the jobs market too. “Early on I realised tech roles can sound terrifying to ‘outsiders’ so I rewrote every role into plain English that everyone could understand,” she says. “The main barrier is understanding.”

It’s timely – since the pandemic, interest in digital careers has risen – more than half of non-tech workers (55%) have considered leapfrogging into the sector since the pandemic, research by IT jobs board CW Jobs shows, and more than one in five of all workers say they have undertaken tech training since spring. But only 3% of girls and women say a tech career is their first choice, and just 16% ever had it suggested to them as an option – compared with a third of males.

When Suzi Godson, the author and sex and relationships columnist, decided to launch her now award-winning mental health app MeeTwo, she took a diligent approach. “I had a clear vision but no tech background at all. So I read a book and worked really hard – I was a classic ‘do-goody’ woman doing her best to get an A*.”

When dealing with developers, there were times, she says, when it would have helped if she and her co-founder were 20 years younger and had beards. “We struggled with credibility. As middle-aged women we had to prove ourselves 10 times over and work 10 times harder.”

Industry leaders hope new overtures towards would-be entrepreneurs and career switchers will change this.

It did for former non-fiction book editor, Bella Cockrell. She ditched a career in publishing for web development, but if there’s any part of her former career that she’ll miss, it’s chatting to editors “who are fantastic and passionate about their craft”. With a master’s in English literature and philosophy, and six years of editing, she was won over by an afterwork talk on learning to code. “It seemed like magic to me – I was hooked.”

During the four months she was furloughed, she learned to build websites and play around with code, and joined a short bootcamp – which helped her win a place in September on a paid 12-week training programme run by Made Tech, with a guaranteed job at the end. Any worries that it would be “too mathsy” have been dispelled. “I find building software so much more creative than being an editor,” she says. “I do feel opportunities are limitless – that’s one of my main reasons for moving.”

Like Cockrell, French and Spanish graduate Magdalene Amegashitsi sought a job that promised more – her work in market research paid poorly and she feared it offered few prospects. “My personal life wasn’t going well. I was going through a difficult divorce, and had a baby and toddler who relied on me,” she says. Weighing up the risks of retraining, she dismissed law (too costly and lengthy) and finance (not exciting enough), and took a loan to study data science alongside her full-time job. She’d be up at 3am to study before her children woke. “Everyone asked me ‘are you sure?’ It was a difficult time,” she recalls. “This was a risky decision, but I had support from friends, I’m a natural multitasker and I have a curious mind.”

She’s now a data programme manager at IT consultancy Avanade, where she helps gather data from different sources for clients so they can use it to make better business decisions.

What makes the sector welcoming for newbies is a host of supportive communities, say women who’ve found their way in. There are many free resources – Codecademy, Khan Academy, Udemy, CodinGame, Code First Girls, freeCodeCamp, TechPixies to name a few – and coding boot camps run around the UK.

“If you don’t know where to begin, start looking what’s available locally,” says Denise Jennings, head of HR at the software provider RotaCloud, and she emphasises that women don’t need a tech or maths background to start.

Tech is a vast field and new entrants do need to consider where to focus – from building websites or apps, designing software, through to cybersecurity, marketing and more – and then work out the key skills required. “You don’t need a four-year degree,” says Jennings.

So what are the main roles in tech?

Programmers

Would-be programmers could start by learning a language – there are many and some of the most popular are JavaScript, Go or Python. There are plenty of online resources to tap into. With these languages you can eventually create many of the digital tools consumers and businesses interact with, says Sinead Bunting, co-founder of the Tech Talent Charter.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity and data science are growth areas, Bunting says. There are free beginner courses, such as an introduction to cryptography, offered via the online learning platform FutureLearn.

Data

Every company needs to capture data about clients and business processes, says Bunting, and data engineers help manage and understand this data, “which involves understanding how databases work and often understanding the programming languages that determine how systems capture, and interpret data”.

User experience

There are openings in designing the “feel” of an experience – dealing with issues such as making it easy to manage money via a banking app, or what a user sees when they log on. These roles are often called digital product owners, UI (user interface) or UX (user experience) designers, says Bunting. “It’s an incredibly important role as the success of many brands relies on the usability of their technology.”

If all these terms are baffling, there are free mini-courses from the Institute of Coding that don’t just give a taste of coding, but also an idea of what tech roles are and what they entail. The industry group Women in Tech have a guide to navigating entry into the sector.

“I’m a big believer in learning by doing,” says Kate Jillings, tech entrepreneur and former humanities graduate who founded her first tech business at 29. “I went to uni in the era of landlines and hand-written essays, barely using any tech at all.” She now runs ToucanTech – software used by schools, clubs and charities to manage communities and fundraising. “We are inquisitive women – from non-techy backgrounds – now managing highly technical product development.”

Fundamental to success for outsiders is a natural curiosity about the tech itself and what it does. “You can do courses, but you have to have the right mindset and be open to learning and trying stuff out,” Jillings says. “Sometimes it feels odd to hear myself say that ‘I work in tech’, given that I can’t write a single line of code, but I love the sector – the impact you can make, the efficiency gains and the speed of change.”

Top 10 jobs in demand (source: LinkedIn)

1. Software developer

2. Sales representative

3. Project manager

4. IT administrator

5. Customer service specialist

6. Digital marketer

7. IT support/help desk

8. Data analyst

9. Financial analyst

10. Graphic designer