Gender gap

Where have all the women gone? Despite a persistent IT skills shortage in the UK and regardless of concerted efforts by technology companies, support networks and
the UK government, the proportion of female employees in the UK’s IT sector keeps falling.

Not only are fewer women entering the profession, but more are leaving part-way through their careers, quitting well-paid jobs and shifting career direction.

“The stark fact is that fewer women than ever are entering the sector,” says Charmaine Eggberry, MD in the EMEA region for Research in Motion (RIM), manufacturer of the ubiquitous BlackBerry communicator.

She puts the current proportion of women in the industry at 16% – and falling; others, such as the focus group womenintechnology paint a worse picture, saying that in 2008 British female IT professionals have dropped to 11% of the workforce.

Why this situation should exist is subject to widespread debate, but what nobody disagrees about is that the imbalance is unhealthy for the industry and a waste of scarce talent.

The argument is that, unless the pattern can be reversed, there will come a point in the not-too-distant future when the gender imbalance causes women to disregard the sector as a career target, putting it in the same category as traditionally all-male industries such as construction and fisheries.

Eggberry believes the IT industry in Europe is approaching that watershed: “We have reached a tipping point,” she told the audience at BlackBerry’s Women and Technology Awards in London in early May. It is no longer merely ethics driving managers across the industry to rack their brains for new ways to attract and retain female staff – it is a question of business sense. “At 16%, this has become an economic issue, not just a social one,” she says.

The maths is simple. The European Commission calculates that by 2010 there will be a shortfall of 300,000 positions in the region’s technology sector. By eliminating almost 40% of the workforce from the pool of potential workers, the chance of addressing that shortfall is radically reduced.

What is clear is that it need not be this way. Among India’s booming IT services companies, female employee strength is rising towards a third – from a single digit percentage only a decade or so ago.

A losing battle

The cause of the poor representation of women among European organisations – within both technology companies and IT departments – is tied up in a broad set of influences, some cultural, some work related, some rooted in outright prejudice and a lack of flexibility.

“There is a general misconception that the IT industry is not for women, particularly if they’re not engineers or software developers,” explains Eggberry. This is not because women dislike technology. She points to a recent survey showing that women spend an average of £321 a year on high-tech products. However, there is a sharp contrast between owning or using technology and wanting to be part of the world that makes it happen.

Research by RIM in April asked a sample of girls aged 11 to 16 about careers in technology. While 90% said they thought technology was “cool and exciting”, 43% said they would never see working in technology as exciting in any way. “We are losing this battle at grass roots level,” Eggberry concludes.

One reason put forward is a lack of strong role models and mentors to encourage women to join and continue in the IT profession. That is what the BlackBerry Women and Technology Awards are all about (see box).

Indeed, many analysts suspect that it is a lack of visible role models that explains why, according to the focus group Opportunity Now, only 30% of women with degrees in science or technology subjects go on to careers that use those skills, compared with
91% of similarly qualified men, and why so many talented female workers are leaving the technology sector long before the age of retirement.

“Mentoring is really important because it provides an infrastructure for women to be supported when navigating their careers. It’s an injection of knowledge, support and skills,” explains Glenda Stone, CEO of Aurora, which provides female-focused consultancy, research and training services.

Margaret Rice-Jones of Aircom, a nominee for BlackBerry’s awards, agrees, saying, “Leaders and role models tend to have strong alpha-male tendencies.” And women need to see alternatives to that.

But at least part of the role of those figureheads is to show that women can counteract some well-documented issues of residual discrimination against women in the IT workplace – with presenteeism being a major problem.

The latest study by feminist lobbying group The Fawcett Society argues that “Women, as the primary carers [in the home], cannot compete in a workplace where performance is judged according to hours put in, not the quality of work produced.” Despite the commendable examples of companies such as BT and Lloyds TSB (both winners of Women and Technology Awards) a lack of flexible working means that women, especially those with caring obligations, are forced into jobs below their skill level or pushed out of the industry altogether.

This is hugely discouraging to female professionals, and discrimination is as likely to come from women as from men, according to Eileen Brown, IT Pro Evangelist at Microsoft. “There’s the overwhelming sense that, even as a senior woman, you do not have the right to spend time with your children when other managers [of both genders] feel they have been forced to sacrifice everything.” Indeed, women working in the IT sector often find that their company’s claims to flexibility are anything but sustained.

That women still face such obstacles is sobering in light of the fact that the industry is crying out for a range of skills at which women excel. Howard Kendall, director of the Help Desk Institute, points out that “While women are in the minority, in some
areas they are outperforming men in significant numbers.”

These areas are often “customer-facing” roles, such as business analysis, service desks and management, where “superior skills in communication and relationship development are invaluable”, points out Kendall.

Eileen Brown agrees: “Nurturing skills are important for business. Having women in the workplace gives you a much more balanced approach, right across the product life cycle.”

Testosterone zone

That does not sit well with everyone. Many technology employers see skills that are traditionally female as “soft”, accrediting them a low value compared with classic business aptitudes. At the same time, women are at risk of being pigeonholed into stereotypical roles, regardless of their skill set.

“Women tend to get saddled with a lot of the pastoral and administrative work within departments,” explains Dr Alison Phipps of Sussex University, whose recent research investigates the status of women within scientific and technological industries.

It will take more than a critical mass of female technologists to change existing patriarchal attitudes within the sector, according to Phipps. “I don’t think these professions are inherently male, but they are inherently masculine,” she says. “This is partly because men have historically been a numerical majority in the workplace. They have thus shaped its culture.”

One of the main arenas in which a “masculine” working style is prioritised is the endemic culture of presenteeism, in which hours spent at the office are the measure of individual productivity, rather than work completed. “Presenteeism is the scourge of corporate culture,” argues Nickie Smith, former marketing manager for Microsoft’s Hotmail unit. It is also a peculiarly British phenomenon: UK workers put in the longest hours in Europe by a considerable margin, as citizens of the only country to opt out of the 48-hour EU working-time limit.

The unspoken obligation to put in long hours at the office is entirely at odds with the requirements of many female technology workers, especially given the evidence from both industry and academia suggesting that flexible working can benefit both employees and their companies.

“Flexible working makes people more productive,” says Eileen Brown, manager of a sizeable team of flexible workers for Microsoft. “But there is a lack of quality part-time and flexible working available across senior management in IT.”

In a recent survey, over three-quarters of women questioned said that, despite their current employer claiming to support flexible working, actually the option was limited in practice and often more theory than reality.

While the UK government does want to extend the rights of parents to seek flexible working, there is still no legal assurance that those who request it will retain their status. “I would love to work from home sometimes, but I don’t want to seem like a slacker,” said one concerned attendee at a recent womenintechnology networking evening. Another privately outlined how she had several years ago obtained the option of working one day a week at home, but every time her boss changes she has to renegotiate and re-earn the right.

Lost talent

Failure to adapt to a female-friendly work environment is putting UK industries at a huge disadvantage on the global stage. The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) predicts that women will soon make up a third of Indian technology workers.

At companies such as India’s leading IT services player, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), women already number over 28% of the global workforce of 108,000 technologists, a policy that is deemed essential for sustaining the continued rapid growth of the company.

“We don’t think that there are any differences in the capabilities of men and women, and we follow up equal opportunities in spirit as well as in theory,” explains TCS head of HR Nupur Singh. “There are very many supportive policies in place, such as sabbaticals, whereby women can take an employment break of a year or two and then be reintroduced afterwards to an equivalent, appropriate project. This has been the policy since the company was formed.”

“There is a lot of untapped talent,” adds AS Lakshminarayanan, country head for TCS UK and Ireland. “Especially in the knowledge economy, people who have talent and knowledge need to be leveraged as much as possible – where they work from and how they choose to work is not as important. Facilitating women’s working, however, is vital for the global workforce.”

Employers need to act now to attract and retain such talent if they are to be competitive in the 21st century marketplace. It is a challenge that will have to be addressed over many levels and many years. Jayshree Ullal, senior VP at Cisco’s Data Centre, Switching and Services Group, believes that “The crux of the problem can’t be fixed in
five years. It’s going to take decades but, once you have that pipeline going, things will change for the better.”

And Glenda Stone of Aurora is encouraging companies to see “gender capital” as a tangible asset, and to acknowledge “the fact that some people are better at retaining and recruiting female staff than others”.

Whether that is attained through genuinely flexible working policies, structured parental leave, job-shares, mentoring schemes, work placements for female students or by marketing IT to make it alluring to female graduates, the UK IT sector must act now if it is to maintain its standing in the global knowledge economy.

To tap into latent talent, Eggberry advises both employers and potential workers alike to “throw your perceptions out of the window”. And she remains passionate that, for women, this is “the industry to be in”.

BlackBerry Women and Technology Award Winners 2008

Outstanding Woman and Technology

Lizbeth Goodman, director of the University of East London’s SMARTlab digital media institute

Best Female Mentor

Kate Bishop, HR director, EMEA, Dell

Best Company Advancing Women in Technology

BT Group

Best Use of Technology by a Woman

Corporate Sector: Jayne Opperman, CIO, Central Functions, Lloyds TSB

Multimedia Industry: Beatriz Alonso-Martinez, professional services consultant, Avid Technology Europe

SMB: Polly Gowers, CEO,

Public Sector & Academia: Lizbeth Goodman, SMARTlab

Under 30: Lisa Ditlefsen, head of search, Base One

The BlackBerry Women and Technology Awards celebrate the achievements of
women working in the technology sector and applying technology in business, the public sector and beyond. The awards aim to bring these outstanding contributions into the public eye, inspiring a new generation of women who may be considering or developing a career in technology.

Further reading

UK students deserting IT, report finds

A question of gender Examining the dearth of women in IT

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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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