GCHQ to fund ‘nano-degrees’ to increase female coders

Britain’s intelligence service GCHQ plans to boost diversity by working with Code First Girls to increase security and encourage more women to the sector

GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence, security and cyber agency, plans to improve diversity among coders by boosting the number of female coders in their ranks to tackle a broader range of threats, from child online safety to foreign states. Currently, only one-third of the agency’s staff are women. 

To encourage more women to join the agency, GCHQ is funding a 14-week course for “nano-degrees”, to equip women with the skills, support and knowledge needed to change their careers to work in coding.

GCHQ’s primary goal is to counterterrorism, cybersecurity and serious and organised crime. 

“In using AI we will strive to minimise and where possible eliminate biases, whether around gender, race, class or religion,” GCHQ states in a recent paper. “We know that individuals pioneering this technology are shaped by their own personal experiences and backgrounds. Acknowledging this is only the first step – we must go further and draw on a diverse mix of minds to develop, apply and govern our use of AI.”

Increasing diversity in coding 

Jo Cavan, the director of strategic policy and engagement at the agency, says: “We have been working hard to increase that number so we have more diverse teams and better get across the threats we need to today.

“We haven’t got the right mix of minds to get across some of these threats. If you look at China, for example, and how technology is moving east and China is looking to impose non-western values on technology, there is some really important work for us to do there to make sure we are at the forefront of shaping those international technology standards and norms. 

“So it is important to have a diverse team looking at those threats and the opportunities that come from some of those technologies,” Jo continues. “We know that if we get the right mix of minds it will give us a competitive advantage and that’s why we talk labour diversity as being mission critical.”

How GCHQ is achieving their mission

GCHQ has teamed up with Code First Girls, the largest provider of free coding courses for women in the UK. Courses are specifically aimed at women in their late 20s and early 30s who are interested in making a career change. 

Women are drastically underrepresented in the industry, as a recent survey showed only 18% of digital tech roles are held by women. Moreover, only 80% of women who had gone through the coding scheme felt that tech careers were not mentioned or encouraged in school.


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