Millennials and Tech – Are We Really Digital Natives?

Reader, I’m a millennial.

I don’t think I’ve ever come up against a term so useless. But of course, that’s what a millennial would say.

Nevertheless, I am a millennial. Moreover, I’m a millennial with tech issues.

We live in a world which often moves at breakneck speed. We have 24-hour news services sending us breaking news alerts round the clock, on subjects as diverse as mass shootings, political sex scandals and Beyonce’s twins. Communications technology has changed so drastically in the last decade that if you’d told me in 2008 Twitter would a) still exist in 2018 and b) become a major platform for political campaigning and analysis, I would have laughed in your face.

Here’s the problem: things have changed so fast that there are vast number of millennials who, like myself, often cannot keep up. There are two very different halves of my generation.

And women are at a particular disadvantage.

We are hailed as the first generation of true ‘digital natives’. This is a bit of a misconception and, of course, it’s largely a Western reality. Most of us in the West can relate to Dolly Alderton’s frankly exasperating story of going on holiday to France only to sit in the B&B for most of it chatting on MSN. I never really got to take a family holiday overseas when I was young, but I do remember a New Year’s Eve exchanging MSN messages with my best friend until my mum shouted at me at 23:45 to spend some time with her.

Most of us have a good grip on online social media, because, during our adolescence, they were marketed to teenagers as cooler, more private alternatives to using the home phone. Akin to the musical and cultural freedom felt by baby boomers who had portable transistor radios, online services like MSN, MySpace and Facebook gave us our own space to experiment, cultivate and express identities largely away from parental influence.

Yet, in terms of actual digital skills – the kind which help through university and career progression – did we really learn that much?

Our teachers were operating in a system which knew it had to change, and fast, if kids were going to have any hope of functioning in a digital, globalised world. Unfortunately, teachers were often ill-equipped to teach us about coding, content creation and online safety because they were learning along with us. My school did not have a class on coding, and since I was at a relatively well-off state school, I doubt very much that less wealthy schools did either.

There is a divide in the millennial generation, even between those born in the early nineties versus the mid-to-late nineties. When I was leaving school, they were just implementing a student laptop system for junior high schoolers and thinking about more productive digital classes.

I am in that unfortunate group of millennials who missed starting my career when it was not necessary to know more than how to use email, Word, Excel and PowerPoint for most jobs, but arrived too early to make use of the educational opportunities to learn new digital skills. This might have been no big deal in any other era aside from the one we live in. Yet those millennials who began their careers before the 2008 global economic crash had a plethora of opportunities which no longer exist, and they got to take them with only a hint of how much the internet would affect the modern job market. Current job listings comprise a vast number of technologically-focused roles which did not exist before 2010.

This is not to remove agency from women who fit into this group. There are plenty of women who do succeed in tech, although not at the rate we should be. Most of the tech women I know are self-taught, or had to make the effort to seek out opportunities to learn beyond school and university because in many institutions we are not taught the value of digital literacy and coding until halfway through our job search.

Only 20% of tech jobs are held by women. One only needs to look at the deluge of sexist behaviour in Silicon Valley to see that tech is a notorious boys club. In an Observer list of gender problems in tech, it was revealed, amongst other eye-opening statistics, that:

  • Women own only 5% of start ups.
  • They earn only 28% of computer science degrees.
  • Only 7% of partners at Top 100 venture capital firms are women.
  • Women under age 25 in the tech industry earn, on average, 29% less than their male counterparts.
  • Women hold only 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.
  • In the high tech industry, the quit rate is more than twice as high for women (41%) than it is for men (17%).
  • In 2016, venture capitalists invested just $1.46 billion in women-led companies. Male-led companies earned $58.2 billion in investments.
  • Women receive lower salary offers than men for the same job at the same company 63% of the time.

74% of young girls express interest in STEM fields, so something is clearly going amiss here. The discussion of that subject has been, and will continue to be, the focus of multiple books and articles, so I won’t discuss it too much here. Yet the combination of a technological learning gap during adolescence and the cultural barriers around the tech industry combine dangerously to keep women out of careers. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that for women of colour, the picture is even worse.

This is not just a Western problem – in fact, in the West we are lucky to now have access to a range of programmes to teach girls how to code, to subsidise digital skills lessons for university students, and to be able to at least know a few people who could teach us the ropes when it comes to coding or other digital skills.

Globally, the divide between the digitally literate and illiterate is finally having an impact on international policy. The UN now has a global framework to measure digital literacy with a list of competencies including the fundamentals of hardware and software, communication, safety, digital content creation and career-related knowledge and skills. While looking at the list, I noticed gaps in my own digital literacy, even in the career space I inhabit as a freelance content creator.

The theme of 2017’s global literacy day was ‘Literacy in the Digital World’. Recent data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) showed that 750 million adults (two-thirds of whom are women), including 102 million young people, cannot read or write a simple sentence. Immediately, this makes the world of digital knowledge and content creation inaccessible to 750 million people. As of July 2017, only 51% of the world’s population has regular access to the internet. Access statistics obviously differ according to geography with African, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asia-Pacific nations at a disadvantage – and yes, women are still worse off since 12% fewer women use the internet than men worldwide, and this rises to a 25% gap in African nations.

In the West, and in a more acute sense globally, access to careers, economic development and social mobility are at risk due to poverty, generational differences and gender barriers. For women, the next step is to empower ourselves as best as we can to make space in an industry which lacks diversity. Where that cannot be done, national, regional and global government services have a responsibility to ensure that people, particularly women, can start to overcome their disadvantages through widespread computer and internet access.

So, looking to start? Girls Who Code, CodeAcademy and Skillshare provide affordable (mostly free) services to improve your digital skills. To donate to the global effort for an inclusive digital world, check out the Good Things Foundation.

It’s time to tell the tech industry the boys club is over.

Written by Ellen Macpherson

Do you code? Do you want to learn more tech skills? Let us know in the comments!