Companies are increasingly realising the value of women employees and claim to prefer recruiting women into IT departments when given the chance. Yet the gender gap in IT is growing and the number of women in IT has fallen.
Women currently account for 24% of the IT workforce, down from 29% in 1994 and 50% in the 1960s. Only 8% of the UK's principal programmers are women and 7% of the UK IT heads are female.
Why are women rejecting the IT sector? Many argue that it is a combination of education, the difficulties of working in a male dominated environment, the "nerdy" anorak image, and the lack of flexibility in the working environment.
Even though nearly two-thirds of girls achieve above a C grade at GCSE in IT studies, compared to just over half of boys, young women account for only 27% of trainee programmers, leading to the low number of female principal programmers.
Louise Proddow, UK marketing director at Sun Microsystems and a member of the Feminising ICT Taskforce, said the problem starts at an early age with IT having a low visibility and interest among girls. "The media shows few positive roles for girls to relate to. Many of the early images girls face are more supermarkets than stock markets."
There is little exposure to the breadth of technology jobs available: publishing, creativity, communications, Web design, and marketing. This lack of understanding deters women from taking up IT courses; only one-third of IT graduates in the UK are women.
"Young girls at school today are already being educated in an environment with greater access to IT than previous generations. The industry needs to encourage them to perceive IT as an interesting, challenging and ultimately rewarding career," said Neil Holloway, managing director of Microsoft UK.
Working in a male dominated environment can be intimidating and excluding. An employee at Web hosting firm Exodus supports this assessment of the situation in IT, but asked not to be named. "Techie guys can be quite dismissive of the technical skills of women," she said. "They can have a very patronising, pat-on-the-head type attitude. When you encounter people like that, it can be very off-putting."
Jo Young, who has been working in IT for the past four years, agreed, "Every workplace that I've been in has had a majority of men. Women tend to work on helpdesks rather than the technical areas. I think men are better blaggers in technical terms. Many women see the IT industry as nerdy, not very glamorous. Maybe the Internet is changing this image to some degree."
One solution is to hire more women, especially women managers, Young said.
Many perceive the industry as an "old boys club". Although a few women break through the glass ceiling, like Fabiola Arredondo, head of Yahoo! Europe and number one on the list of the most influential business women in the world, the majority are excluded from the higher levels of management.
Ann Swain, chief executive at the Association of Technology Staffing Companies, said employers are making it easy for women to enter or return to IT. "Obviously not all women are interested in parent orientated benefits, but many women still plan a career around a family.
"Unfortunately, recruitment in IT often becomes a quick fix of very specific up-to-date technical skills to fulfil an instant need. This can make life difficult for women to get back into the industry even after a short career break. Also, the industry is fixed in the view that 9am to 6pm are the core working hours, leaving part-timers with few opportunities."
This idea is supported by the Government. Margaret Jay, minister for women, said, "IT employers must become employers of choice. This means offering not just women, but all employees, the opportunity to have fulfiling and successful careers, while being able to balance their work lives.
"In an industry that has such potential to offer flexibility, this must be possible," she added.
The IT industry is growing by 30% a year and IDC has forecast that by 2003 the UK ICT sector will have 330,000 vacancies. The Government is scrambling to reduce the skills shortage and is looking to women to fill the gap. Teaming up with the industry's leaders, the Government is taking steps to change the image of the profession and encourage young women to consider IT as a career.
Speaking at the recent Women's Unit seminar, Women in IT, Jay said, "While women remain under-represented in IT the industry is missing out on enormous potential. We need to ensure women's talent is harnessed and used to the benefit of the industry and the economy as a whole.
"But it's not just about recruitment, ICT companies also need to retain and promote their female staff in order to sustain the pace of growth in the industry.
"Brain is replacing brawn as the driving force of the UK economy and women's participation is increasingly vital to our economic success."
Celebrating International Women's Day? You could embark on a new career by joining other IT business-minded women involved in Busygirl, a business technology portal for women, sipping champagne and networking at Claridges in Mayfair. Details at www.busygirl.co.uk
How Big Oil made the workplace more female friendly
These tips are based on survey results from an oil company that investigated why it was losing female staff.
Ros Taylor, workplace psychologist and director of Plus Consulting
This was first published in March 2001