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Netherlands uses female role models to encourage girls into IT industry

The Netherlands needs to shake up its education system to attract more girls into IT, as only 10% of its IT workforce are women

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This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CWEurope: CW Europe – November 2015:

The lack of women in the IT sector in the Netherlands is an urgent problem, with only 10% of the workforce female.

The country compares badly with other countries worldwide despite new initiatives, as well as established organisations campaigning to encourage girls and women into IT.

It’s remarkable there are so few women working in IT, as the beginning of automation was dominated by women. Many of the early electronic computers, such as Eniac in the US and the Arra in the Netherlands, were operated and programmed by women.

According to often-quoted figures, 65% of the 2,000 computer operators in 1960 were female. However, from the 1970s, the number of men in IT increased and gender distinction in the industry began to arise.

 Full-time jobs

Research by the European Commission (EC) shows that women who completed a course in engineering are employed in their field less often than their male equivalents.

Additionally, the number of women who leave the profession is high, partly the result of starting and raising a family. However, according to research by VHTO, the national centre of expertise for women and girls in science and technology, female professionals in science, engineering and IT generally work full-time.

This distinguishes them from other working women in the Netherlands, with three-quarters of working women having part-time roles, according to the Emancipation Monitor 2014 by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.

Culture, economy and image

VHTO is working with female professionals to provide children with IT role models. The women visit primary and secondary schools to give information about their work and being a female in a male-dominated environment. In recent years, several women have established IT networks for women in the Netherlands, such as “Female Ambassadors in IT” and “Platform Woman and ICT”.

Geke Rosier, founder of Female Ambassadors in IT and director of Right Brains, said a few variables has meant few women find their way into an IT function in the Netherlands.

“Firstly, there is the cultural aspect. Girls in our country are not encouraged to choose technical studies,” said Rosier.

“Then there are economic reasons. In the Netherlands, we have done very well and there is no need for both the husband and wife to work. It is widely accepted for highly educated women to stop working or to work less if there are children,” she added.

Rosier said there is a negative image associated with the IT sector. This negative image is combined with a lack of emphasis on digital in training courses, which could attract more students, she said.

“We have studies for computer science, mathematics and business administration, but digitisation is not integrated, despite it being the norm today.”

In the Netherlands, Oracle, IBM, Cisco and Microsoft have joined forces under the name Platform Diversity in IT (DIT) to address the lack of women in the industry.

“Today, technology is everywhere,” says Jannie Minnema, business director of business operations and strategy, Europe, the Middle-East and Africa at Oracle, and one of the evangelists of diversity in the organisation.

“IT is no longer merely technology or zeros and ones. There is a growing need for people who can bridge the gap between technology and business. Making connections is typically a feminine trait, as is communication.”

Education needs revision

An important point Platform DIT wants to make is that schoolgirls need to come into contact with IT studies earlier to allow them to make informed career choices.

“A lot of Dutch schools lack IT-education, they don’t have the subject computer science, so young girls do not come into contact with the subject. They are less able to make an informed choice about their career,” says Minnema.

“The whole Dutch primary and secondary education needs to be thoroughly revised when it comes to computer science,” says Minnema.

Linda de Borst, marketing portfolio analytics leader at IBM and involved in Platform DIT, said: “If the Netherlands wants to remain at the forefront in digitisation, it’ll need a generation who have been exposed to technology. It would be wonderful if we could create a Dutch Silicon Valley.”

To reach that goal, Minnema said there are a lot of necessary steps, not only by the platform itself. “To gain more clout, it requires co-operation, which is why there are exploratory talks with IT industry organisation Nederland IT.”

Lotte de Bruijn, director of Nederland ICT, agreed with her. “Computer science has to be anchored in the Dutch education,” she said.

De Bruijin sees IT as a driver of economic growth. “Each sector digitises with tremendous speed which means that ICT lies at the heart of our society and that you want to be part of it.”

However, De Bruijn sees the image of technology hopelessly lagging behind reality. Many people, mostly women and girls, do not choose a career in IT as the image of the sector is very technical and dusty, she said.

Nonetheless, the sector needs more women ensure diverse teams. Research shows that men and women approach developing products differently, with women focusing on user-friendliness and men on high-tech. “Put these skills together and you get an awesome product.”

Ignoring half of the potential

Nederland ICT supports many initiatives to get IT on the agenda in Dutch education. It signed Code Pact, aimed at programming classes in school. It also participates in the project “Pay IT forward”, in which members of Nederland ICT visit schools to tell students about their profession and the potential of IT.

By anchoring computer science in the Dutch education, huge potential can be reached. “That’s not to say we want everyone to become a developer, but it’s a pity to leave so much potential behind. This way you can reach many girls. We cannot afford to ignore 50% of the potential.”

Read more about women in IT

This was first published in October 2015

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