Practical steps needed to bring more women into IT.
Over the years there have been a number of initiatives to attract more women into IT and encourage girls still at school to see IT as a worthwhile choice of subject.
Although these initiatives may have achieved some success, the question remains: what can be done, and by whom, to reverse significantly the trend of dwindling numbers of women in IT?
First, there are three groups of people who need to be convinced that having more women in IT would be beneficial to the industry as a whole.
The most important group are women themselves. As IT has become ever more oriented towards fulfilling the goals of the business rather than simply providing a processing service, so the spotlight has turned increasingly onto soft skills, such as project management, mentoring and communicating to the business, rather than just technical expertise.
Many women naturally possess these soft skills from organising their homes, talking to the kids, and project managing that house move, and are consequently more than qualified to addvalue to IT departments by using these skills.
The next group to be convinced are male recruitment agents who influence whether an individual's CV is put forward for roles in the IT industry.
Shortlisted by gender
I've often been asked, "You do know it is a technical role, don't you?" when applying for a position through a recruiter. As I have certifications from Microsoft, Oracle, ISEB, Comptia, ISC2 and the APM Group on my CV, it seems unlikely I would be applying for a receptionist role, but such questions are the price one pays for being a woman.
In my experience, many male recruiters simply do not know enough about IT to be able to decide whether an applicant's CV matches up with the job specification they've been sent, so they choose to do the shortlisting according to gender instead.
If a woman is lucky enough to make it past the recruitment agent, then there's the line manager who, in many cases, is a man. In my last three roles at executive level, I've reported to members of both sexes and have felt sufficiently supported to continue to be a working mother of five and an IT executive.
However, the majority of women in IT are on the helpdesk or in first-line support and are not encouraged to climb the corporate ladder unless they are fortunate enough to report to a manager who believes in mentoring their staff and does not feel threatened by the capabilities of those being mentored.
Many men do not possess mentoring skills, which might explain why women in recent surveys say one of the things that puts them off a career in IT is the prospect of a male boss.
Power of role models
Finally, the last group to be convinced are the next generation - the girls in schools who are increasingly shying away from IT. Girls are drawn to fashion icons such as Kate Moss as role models rather than any woman currently working in IT. Do they know we actually exist? And if so, how can we make IT appear fashionable to girls at an impressionable age?
There are ways. IT companies could organise and sponsor fun events such as fashion shows featuring women from the IT industry rather than celebrities who have possibly never touched a PC in their lives. Also, why not run a sustained advertising campaign from E-Skills on prime-time TV, again featuring real women in the industry?
Similarly, why not press for coverage of events such as industry awards in the mainstream media which women and girls have access to, thus reaching a broader audience?
My final suggestion is that Microsoft should be persuaded to support a sustained campaign - maybe promoting the next release of Windows using women who will eventually work with the product, from helpdesk to manager level. Seeing such women talking about their jobs, in literature enclosed with every PC sold around the globe, might persuade more women that there is a potential career for them in IT.
Needless to say, breaking into IT and reaching the top is hard for a woman, and even more so for those from an ethnic minority background. However, a sustained and concerted joint campaign by the media, Microsoft and organisations such as E-Skills could prove more successful than any other initiative to date.
Ibukun Adebayo is director of IT at social care charity Turning Point
This was first published in February 2006