A question of gender

Walk the halls of any major IT user conference – SAP Sapphire, Oracle OpenWorld or IBM Lotusphere – and you will be struck be a distinct sense of imbalance.

Run your eye down the internal phone list of almost every IT department, and the same lopsided ratio appears.

Despite almost two decades of concerted efforts by pressure and support groups within the IT industry, as well as programmes run by government, schools and universities, the number of women working in IT has fallen dramatically – and it continues to fall.

The annual labour survey by the UK’s Office of National Statistics shows that while in 1997 27% of the IT workforce was female, by 2004 that had crashed to 21%. And in some parts of the industry – application development, testing, maintenance, for example – the percentage is even lower, heading rapidly towards single digits.

Moreover, the erosion is evident at both ends of the career spectrum. Not only are fewer women entering the IT profession, but even those with a career in IT are showing a surprising willingness to abandon their highly paid jobs.

The reasons behind the falling presence are complex. Girls at school and in further education do not develop an understanding of the scope of the career opportunities, say close observers of the trend. They have a different ‘relationship’ with computers, being drawn to what computers can do rather than the workings of the box or the software itself – an attitude that is often misinterpreted as disinterest. And the role models they observe in the adult world suggest IT is a male domain populated by ‘geeks’.

Women who have built a career in IT talk of a lack of flexibility in the profession that often clashes with the responsibilities of parenthood; at different stages they hit ‘glass-ceilings’ that inhibits their career progression; and they lack role models and peer support to inspire their confidence.

All that is despite the fact that employers acknowledge that women are often more suited to many of the key roles in modern IT, where aligning IT with business goals requires close liaison between the two and strong interpersonal skills.

And ironically, in recent years, as they move into the ranks of management, women are actually now better paid than men. A survey by the Chartered Management Institute shows that the average female IT manager was paid 5% less than her male counterpart in 2003, but by 2005 was 2% ahead. Another study by the Help Desk Institute showed that even as the proportion of women in IT support was falling (from 36% to 32% in the last two years), women have been much more likely to be promoted.

So why, in an era of scarce technology skills, have women ended up being such a minority? And what (if anything) can be done to redress the imbalance?

Fuzzy image

Certainly, the misperceptions about the IT world start young. Late last year, Toshiba Information Systems surveyed the opinions of 1,112 girls, aged 11 to 18, and found a confused picture. Over three-quarters said they were ‘very interested’ in computers and that they imagined that working in IT would be ‘fast-paced and challenging’ (57%) and involve ‘working with smart people’ (88%).

However, when they had to think of what IT work involved, 85% said it was mostly administrative and office work. Almost half said they would not consider such a direction for their career.

Girls are not interested in the machine itself – they want an outcome."

Margaret Moran, MP

All that points to a desperate need for teachers, parents, careers advisors and others who influence children’s perceptions to improve understanding of the scope of IT roles. This is a serious issue that Margaret Moran, Labour MP for Luton South and the chair of the European IT industry Parliamentary Forum (EURIM), is trying to address. Girls may be very interested in computers, but that is “not translating into an interest in going on to an actual job in IT,” she observes.

The problem is that in many girls’ minds, IT only means installing, repairing and program-ming computers. “Girls are not interested in the machine itself; they want an outcome,” says Moran, while boys more often accept that IT, per se, is “cool”.

Just to begin to address the problem, “we should be looking right back at the level where girls engage with computer tasks, and how to sustain their interest by making the work focused on a purpose,” she says. “It needs to be made more ‘buzzy’ for girls, to make them see that they can achieve things through the use of the technology, rather than just see it as a narrow skill in itself.”

Feeding into that is an industry-wide image problem. “A lot of feedback from reports over the years says that girls and women see IT as a ‘nerdy’ industry – even though this image is behind [the times],” says Pat Barlow, a strategy consultant with BT Global Services. “We have to make it clear that IT is no longer about bits and bytes and fiddling around with wires: it is a range of skills and abilities.”

Entry points

That image problem, coupled with a loss of interest in computers and a tendency to de-emphasise maths skills for girls as they move through school, means that those who actually go on to study ‘pure IT’ subjects at university are predominantly male (75% to 80% at many colleges).

However, the graduate intake by IT services companies and IT departments – where recruits are drawn from both IT and other disciplines – goes at least some way to redressing that imbalance. At Atos Origin, the graduate intake currently stands at about 70:30, says Ursula Morgenstern, the services group’s head of technology solutions.

However, unlike many IT departments which still see an IT qualification as the entry ticket, Atos Origin is agnostic about the degree subject and more interested in the qualities of the individual. “We are interested in a wide range of backgrounds. Careers in the computer industry are not just about [software] development, they are about project management and business analysis; we need a wide range of skills,” she says.

And that plays to women’s strengths. “I see women moving into operational roles,” says Glenda Stone, CEO of Aurora, a women-only technology and networking company in the City of London. If women are not going to go down the route of programming, then there are plenty of opportunities for them to move into areas such as managing projects and customer facing roles, she says, making a distinction between being ‘tech in tech’ and ‘operational in tech’.

That highlights another entry point into IT that also encourages the cross-fertilisation of skillsets. As IT has become embedded into business processes, women from outside the traditional IT department have been attracted to the prospect of getting involved in managing the application of technology.

This ‘lateral transfer’ means women from marketing, HR, procurement, finance and other areas are moving into what might be deemed technology roles. “A typical entry point for an SAP consultant, for example, will be from accountancy or HR background,” says Atos’s Morgenstern. “They will have worked in industry, become involved in an IT project and then made the move.”

The opportunities for such lateral shifters are there not just due to closer IT/business alignment but because of a shortage of rounded management skills within IT.

Soft skills

“Women definitely bring different skills to the table from men,” says Maggie Berry, UK communications director of the Women In Technology (WIT) networking group.

That is evident at Toshiba Information Systems in the UK, where Sandra Smith heads IT. She finds that in the face of a shortage of the kind of people-management skills that women often bring to the organisation, she is drawn into activities that she would rather delegate – to another woman. “I have not got enough people out there with the soft skills, who I can ask to find out what the problems are,” she says, “and it is starting to become a real problem. I’m very concerned about the lack of women coming forward for IT roles.”

And many of those ‘people skills’ are in short supply. “A good project manager is gold dust; a good technical architect who has the business-to-technology skillset is someone we are very short of,” says Atos’s Morgenstern. “Women need the opportunity to be in those roles, because they are not just about programming and they can provide a level of flexibility that I know my female colleagues are looking for.”

And of all the issues behind the outflow of women from IT, flexibility tops the list. A July 2005 Department of Trade and Industry report into ‘How to retain women in the IT industry’ found that the trigger for most departures was a lack of flexibility in working practices, attitudes, behaviours and culture.


"I haven't got enough people out there with soft skills. I'm very concerned about the lack of women coming forward for IT roles."

Sandra Smith, Toshiba Information Systems

When women return from a career break (most commonly maternity leave), they often find that their employer will make little provision for their changed responsibilities, still expecting that they will readily participate in weekend IT implementations, out-of-hours trouble-shooting, extensive business travel and so on.

Just ask Teresa Schofield, the regional director of Cranfield University’s central innovation network. “When I was with Texas Instruments, I asked if I could work four days per week, and they asked me how they were supposed to find a guy to work the other day. This was the big problem: it was ‘full time or forget it’ – so I left.”

However, that kind of treatment is becoming less common – at least among larger organisations. “Employers in the IT sector are slowly beginning to realise that [inflexibility] could have a major impact on their businesses,” says Paul Taylor, director of IT at human resources consultancy, Hudson UK. “If they want to attract and retain women, they must do more than pay lip service to flexible working arrangements.”

With that in mind, women are targetting specific companies. “The sands are shifting – there are market leaders and market laggards in terms of those offering a challenging, well-rewarded, equally paid, flexible working career,” says Aurora’s Stone.

Toshiba’s Smith says the way to encourage and keep women in a career in IT is to project and live up to the message: “Come and work for us. We are a great company to work for if you have got a family.” At Toshiba in the UK, staff can ‘flex their hours’, swapping pay for more holiday, and work remotely.

“Parents can phone in and say they have to take care of their ill child and that they need to work from home,” says Smith. “When they come back, their manager will run through what they have achieved, whether they got a day’s work done, and, if not, whether they want to book holiday time. Flexible working and a flexible attitude and some good old-fashioned give-and-take on childcare and domestic arrangements really pays dividends in retaining staff.”

But women also need direct support from their peers. Networking and mentoring groups – within companies, sectors and industry-wide – have been set up by a variety of government agencies and commercial organisations. “Women networks are critical,” says Barlow at BT, which has two such groups, one reserved for more senior “role models”. Both are “very much supported by senior management”.

At the other end of the career ladder encouragement is also needed, and initiatives take several forms. E-skills UK, the government-funded IT skills promotion agency, provides Computer Clubs for Girls, with the aim of persuading girls of 10 to 14 to engage with technology. Universities also have a huge role to play. Over and above providing degrees that focus on software development, hybrid courses that include the application of IT in business are needed.

However, if there is going to be any reversal of the shrinking presence of women in IT, then all of these solutions – education, image makeover, flexible working – must work in concert. Politicians are acutely aware of the encroachment on the industry of talent pools from India, China and eastern Europe. “The reality of the economy is that this is the way we have to go,” says MP Margaret Moran.

The question is: will women follow?



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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