Hewlett-Packard, e-Bay, Lucent Technologies and Autodesk have something in common. It is not just that they are leading, multi-million-pound, global brands in the technology and communications market. It is the fact that their chief executives - Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Pat Russo and Carol Bartz, respectively - are women, who run male-dominated companies in a male-oriented industry.
These professionals play down their gender as irrelevant to the job at hand. In the case of running their own particular company, perhaps they are right. However, there is a growing body of opinion that considers gender to be of serious significance to the health and wealth of the UK IT industry.
As Computer Weekly reported earlier this year, the long-term decline of women in IT has accelerated. According to research organisation E-Skills, women make up 20% of the workforce. The proportion of women working in the industry has steadily declined since 1997. This decline is the result of a failure of the industry to recruit women, as well as to retain those already working in the sector.
According to research carried out by the Women in IT Forum, women are leaving the industry at a faster rate than it can recruit them. The forum is dedicated to increasing the numbers of women in IT and has representatives from public and private sector organisations. It is an initiative that addresses the needs and aspirations of women of all ages and backgrounds, from schoolgirls to those returning to work later in life. It runs a research programme and shares best practice across the IT industry.
It is the role of women in leadership positions in the IT industry that is causing concern. "We believe the UK IT industry will suffer from the knock-on effects of a female brain-drain if the problem is not addressed now," said Wendy Hall, president of the British Computer Society.
For this year's BCS IT Professional Awards, the society has introduced a Women in IT Award. It recognises UK companies that are promoting opportunities for women in the IT industry, including leadership roles.
"This award is all about encouraging companies in the UK to foster an atmosphere that enables women to develop their IT skills and careers, and at the same time inspire more women to step forward into the profession," said Hall. "It aims to applaud organisations that have demonstrated enhanced opportunities for women in IT. However, the fact remains that less than a fifth of the IT workforce is female, despite the evidence of recent A-level results, which shows that girls are twice as successful as boys in IT."
At a time when women are making headway in other sectors, why is the IT industry driving them away? Does it matter that the numbers of women in IT are declining? What are the business benefits of keeping a healthy gender balance?
Rebecca George, director of UK government business at IBM, and chairwoman of the Women in IT Forum, said, "The business world is changing fast globally and part of it is to do with geopolitics and the rise of India and China. This means that many companies have to adapt to the challenges and opportunities these changes bring.
"For large companies to keep ahead of this changing external environment, they have to be very flexible and adaptive to changing markets. Being flexible means not having a one-dimensional view, as companies that are populated and run by the same kinds of people tend to be. Diversity is, therefore, imperative for survival."
The fundamental problem seems to be that of retention: the IT industry is losing more women than it is hiring, particularly at senior levels. The result is a disquieting scarcity of women in leadership roles.
Motherhood is an easy explanation, but the reason could be more complex. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that women may be leaving the IT industry at a more mature phase in their career for other, but not as well-researched, reasons. These reasons could include work/life-balance issues.
"Women are not just leaving the industry to raise their families; they are also leaving in their forties and fifties," said George.
Research by the Women in IT Forum suggests that women in this age group decide to leave because they are uncomfortable with what they perceive as a "macho style of management" involving long hours at work and inflexibility in working practices.
George highlights IBM's flexible working hours programme as an example of how companies can introduce measures to meet this challenge. The programme is not just for women, it is available to any employee who requests to work in a flexible manner at the same time as balancing business needs.
"If we had a multimillion-pound budget to reverse the decline of women in IT, where would we start? Women do not see it as a place to go for a good career and fall out of the industry because they do not think that it is a friendly environment to work in," said Hall.
It is Hall's belief that the future of computing is about pervasive and collaborative networking, both in the way the technology works and the way in which the IT industry conducts itself. Furthermore, she believes collaborative working and networking are female characteristics.
Hall predicted that in 10 years' time, when the current generation of girls aged between 11 and 14 years old enters the workforce, the way we build our systems will change and become more inherently collaborative.
The BCS IT Professional Awards 2004 ceremony will take place tonight (19 October) at the Hilton Park Lane, London. For more information, click here >>
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The BCS IT Professional Awards
The BCS IT Professional Awards celebrate excellence, professionalism and innovation among UK IT companies. The awards recognise the contribution of businesses and the individuals within them to Britain's economic prosperity, business efficiency and public services.
The awards are comprised of four categories: Business Achievement, Technology, Individual Awards and Women in IT.
New this year, the Women in IT Award recognises UK companies that are promoting opportunities for women to take leadership roles within the IT industry. The judging process is undertaken by panels of senior IT professionals. Winners will be announced at a black tie dinner to be held at London's Hilton Park Lane at 6.30pm tonight (19 October). For more information click here >>