Leading female IT professionals have warned that UK businesses and the government have a moral and competitive responsibility to address the looming IT skills shortage by bridging the gender gap in the IT industry.
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Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the number of women working in the IT industry has fallen from 27% in 1997 to 21% in 2004, and it is continuing to decline. Just 17% of students starting computer science degrees this year were women.
A survey of 1,112 schoolgirls age 11 to 18, commissioned by Toshiba, revealed 76% of girls were interested in technology and computers, but 43% would never consider pursuing a career in IT, and 33% were unsure.
At an industry debate chaired by Patience Wheatcroft, business editor of The Times, 11 leading female IT professionals from the public and private sectors agreed that in a male-dominated IT environment "less pushy" women often did not ask for pay rises or promotions when they deserved them.
Women who were not appreciated at work voted with their feet, moving to areas where they could be creative and have their input recognised, the debate heard.
Women also lost out on networking opportunities. Maggie Berry, UK communications director at networking group Women in Technology, said, "From our networking events we have discovered that there are not always enough opportunities for a younger woman coming up through the ranks to talk in a very open situation to someone at the top level on an informal basis."
Flexible working and work/life balance were also key issues. Sandra Smith, head of IS at Toshiba, said, "The IT industry can be perceived as being 24x7." She added that skills shortages would make IT departments more expensive to run.
Ursula Morgenstern, head of e-package solutions at consultancy Atos Origin, said, "The IT industry is not about working day and night, but it can be a very time-pressured environment. In our industry, the work/life balance is really about mobility."
MP Margaret Moran, a member of the parliamentary backbench committee for women and the IT group, said, "We need to grow the number of women in IT, otherwise the UK's leading position in the IT world will be severely threatened."