Tim Cook: If we don't get more women in STEM, "the US will lose its edge in technology"

Tim Cook was in the UK as part of a tour to showcase ARKit and the new iPhone 8 range

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When it comes to discussing the lack of women in tech, Tim Cook doesn't pull any punches.

Speaking to Alphr as part of his iPhone 8 European tour, the Apple CEO warned that failing to encourage and develop women in STEM doesn't just reflect badly on society, it could actually undermine the industry as we know it.

"This is so important," the 56-year-old explained. "This is a problem that all of us have to solve or technology will [go downhill]. The US will lose its edge." 

Alphr sat down with Cook in an apartment in London. Looking remarkably fresh following a whistle-stop tour of Paris, which included a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron, Cook described where he believes this lack of diversity stems from, and how companies are still not doing enough to plug the gender gap. 

"I think schools essentially teach to boys," Cook told Alphr. "They’re not thinking like that, but by and large the things they’re showing; because they just show games instead of all these other things you can do to get everyone interested, [the problem] starts there.

"There are also not enough women role models for students to look at and say: 'Wow, she’s an incredible coder. I want to be like that.' It's not the only reason, but it is an issue." 

 Beyond schools, Cook believes tech companies, in general, have not done a good job at retaining women as they progress through their career. "Some of that is a lack of flexibility; to let them stop and have kids and come back." And while many companies are "doing a better job" in this respect, Cook claims we're at a point that the role model issue in schools continues to transcend all the way up to business. "There are many industries where this is the case, where there are not enough women at the top at reaching out." 

Over the past three years, the number of females joining the company as new hires has risen from 31% in 2014 to 37% last year. Some 27% of the companies newest employees additionally fall into the “underrepresented minorities” group, which includes black, Hispanic, and Native Americans. Cook admits that there is still work to do across the tech industry and that progress is moving "too slow for us all," but "things are beginning to change." Apple also runs an equal pay scheme and as of August 2016, women and minorities each $1 for every $1 dollar male employees make.

"We're putting a lot of energy into this, and we're very passionate about it," Cook continued. 

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A major part of Cook's London visit also involved meeting with the developers using Apple's ARKit to create augmented reality experiences for iPhone users. By building the fundamentals of augmented reality software into iOS 11, Cook said that "technology sits in the background allowing people to be creative and work on ideas." This, he added, is core to how Apple approaches both hardware and software and the changes that augmented reality will bring are as "profound" as the introduction of multitouch.  

"Multitouch was profound. All of a sudden it gave us a way of interacting with software when we were all used to buttons and mice and clicks. It changed everything. AR, I believe, is that big. It's horizontal in nature; it touches so many industries. Because it's a mixed reality experience, instead of a closed world where you're isolated, you can see this helping people connect more in meaningful ways; get more productive in business; learn faster. It's like everything."

READ NEXT: AR, VR and MR: What's the difference? 

He continued that AR will likely change society in a similar way to how apps did. "In 2008, the App Store cranked up and the first apps rolled off and people said they weren't interesting and they're never going to take off and I'm sure people will say that about AR. You can bet that they will. And then you can bet that people will wake up and say 'I can't believe I ever lived without it."

The timing of Cook's visit coincided with EU Code Week, an initiative supported by the European Commission that "celebrates the importance of coding and aims to help people of all ages learn how to bring ideas to life with code." It actually runs for a fortnight, from October 7-22, and Apple is offering coding sessions across its stores to encourage people to learn the skill. 

During last year's Startup Fest Europe in Amsterdam, Apple described coding as "just another language, and just like any other language it should be taught in schools," before adding, "We are doing our kids a disservice if we are not introducing them to coding." He echoed these sentiments during our conversation saying that coding it the world's most significant "second language." 

READ NEXT: iOS 11's best new features

"Many of us have a native language and learn a secondary language and coding should be seen in that way," Cook explained.

Beyond EU Code Week, over the next year, Apple plans to offer more than 6,000 of these sessions across Europe as part of its Today at Apple programme, unveiled at its September event. These sessions will take place in 100 retail stores in ten countries and will specifically teach participants how to code in the programming language Swift. The sessions are aimed at children and adults and include 'Get Started with Coding,' 'Kids Hour Sphero Maze Challenge' and 'How to Program Robots with Swift Playgrounds’.

Apple introduced Swift Playgrounds and its Everyone Can Code curriculum in 2016, both of which are free. The app has been downloaded 1.4 million times since September and can be used in 15 languages, including English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch and Turkish.

"Technology has a language. It’s called code. And we believe coding is an essential skill," Apple said. "Learning to code teaches you how to solve problems and work together in creative ways. And it helps you build apps that bring your ideas to life. We think everyone should have the opportunity to create something that can change the world. So we’ve designed a programme that lets anyone learn, write and teach code."

Cook continued: “We believe coding is the language of the future that everyone should have the chance to learn."

There are, of course, other initiatives aimed at getting children in particular to start coding. In March last year, the BBC launched a scheme to get one million school children to code which included sending its own micro:bits to Year 7s. Micro:bits are credit-card sized computers that let you learn how to code lights and play games. Elsewhere, Microsoft offers an education version of its hit game Minecraft that aims to teach children by developing worlds in the platform.

You can find a local coding session at events.codeweek.eu and apple.com/uk/today. Alternatively, there are a number of online resources that can teach children and adults to code:

Image: Brooks Kraft/Apple

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