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Computing degree apprenticeships: an opportunity to address gender imbalance in the IT sector?

Smith, Sally; Taylor-Smith, Ella; Fabian, Khristin; Barr, Matthew; Berg, Tessa; Cutting, David; Paterson, James; Young, Tiffany; Zarb, Mark


Sally Smith

Ella Taylor-Smith

Khristin Fabian

Matthew Barr

Tessa Berg

David Cutting

James Paterson


This paper explores the potential for new work-based apprenticeship degrees to encourage more women into computing degrees and the IT sector. In the UK, women are currently under-represented on computing courses. Meanwhile the IT industry requires more computing graduates, in general, and specifically more highly skilled women to create appropriate products and systems. The UK has recently introduced apprenticeship computing degrees, where the apprentice is a work-based employee. In some models, apprentices spend 20% of their time on Higher Education studies and also gain credits through work-based learning; in others, apprentices spend blocks of time in Higher Education and the workplace. These degrees offer a new and innovative route to studying computing at university. Largely funded by employers, apprentices are salaried, and their fees are paid, paving the way for more people to study for a degree. The work context enables apprentices to keep their jobs (if relevant) or to move into IT roles and start a computing degree without necessarily having computing qualifications; the degrees have no upper age limit. Extending the work-based approach of US cooperative education and student work placement models, apprenticeship degrees have been introduced to increase skills levels through a close partnership between universities and employers. This is particularly important in IT, where the sector is expanding, and employers are looking for both good technical and personal skills. With this model, employers are collaboratively involved in the design of the degrees and apprentices graduate with extensive work experience.We posed the following research question: Are there differences in the paths into computing apprenticeship degrees between women and men? A survey was conducted with apprentices beginning a degree in Fall 2019: Cyber Security, Data Science, IT Management for Business, or Software Engineering/Development. Participants were asked about their routes into the apprenticeship and the IT sector. Apprentices at five universities in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland completed the survey, on paper or online (n=85; 23 female, 59 male).The results revealed a less severe gender imbalance than with comparative on-campus degrees (28% female), but this varied greatly across the subjects, from Data Science, where 55% of respondents identified as female and IT Management for Business (40% female), to Software Development (27% female) and Cyber Security (only 11% female). Apprentices were more likely to have started the degree at least a few years after leaving school and this was especially true for women. More female respondents had also been with their current employer for over five years. However, women were slightly more likely to have joined their employers in order to start the apprenticeship.This initial work identifies opportunities to recruit women onto computing degree apprenticeships, for example by targeting women who have started careers. It also highlights that there are challenges in recruiting women into certain subject areas, especially Cyber Security, but also Software Development. Exploring our respondents' motivations for choosing their subjects illuminates the gender balance challenge and indicates how degree apprenticeships can encourage more women into the IT sector.


SMITH, S., TAYLOR-SMITH, E., FABIAN, K., BARR, M., BERG, T., CUTTING, D., PATERSON, J., YOUNG, T. and ZARB, M. 2020. Computing degree apprenticeships: an opportunity to address gender imbalance in the IT sector? In Proceedings of 2020 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Frontiers in education conference (FIE 2020), 21-24 October 2020, [virtual conference]. Piscataway: IEEE [online], article ID 9274144. Available from:

Conference Name 2020 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Frontiers in education conference (FIE 2020)
Conference Location [virtual conference]
Start Date Oct 21, 2020
End Date Oct 24, 2020
Acceptance Date May 11, 2020
Online Publication Date Dec 4, 2020
Publication Date Dec 31, 2020
Deposit Date Jan 21, 2021
Publicly Available Date Jan 21, 2021
Publisher Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
Series ISSN 2377-634X
ISBN 9781728189611
Keywords Computer science; Degree apprenticeship; Gender; Graduate apprenticeship; Motivations; Women
Public URL


SMITH 2020 Computing degree (AAM) (362 Kb)


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