A balanced workforce is a productive one

Women in IT The number of women working in IT is falling, but some organisations are recognising how to redress the balance by...

Women in IT The number of women working in IT is falling, but some organisations are recognising how to redress the balance by tempting women back into the IT workforce

The number of women working in the IT profession has dropped alarmingly over the past three years. Since 1999, the number of women in the IT workforce has fallen by half, from 100,000 to just over 53,700.

Long hours, growing work pressures and the difficulty of finding suitable childcare are among the factors believed to have contributed to the decline. Against this gloomy backdrop some companies are bucking the trend and are managing not only to maintain but also to increase the numbers of women they employ.

Their motives stem from a conviction that a balanced workforce is more productive and creative than an unbalanced one.

The British Computer Society, which has long championed the role of women in IT, gave awards to two companies last week for their work in the field.

Pharmaceuticals manufacturer Pfizer and IBM shared some of their secrets with Computer Weekly.

Pfizer's team spirit

Pfizer's business information technology division is responsible for buying and rolling out application software for Pfizer Pharmaceutical Group's sales, marketing and medical operations.

The division has the equivalent of 48 full-time employees, of which 21, equivalent to 43% of the workforce, are women. Over the past year, three of the five most critical IT projects managed by the department were overseen by women and women also secured 70% of the promotions.

Peter Hansson, IT director of the division, said a balanced team has more to offer than teams that are predominantly male.

"We have a female/male split of nearly 50/50 in the staff and 50/50 in my leadership team. We do not have a written policy to recruit women but you need to have a mix of people," he said.

"When I try to build a team it is my intention that we have men and women in good balance."

Hansson is Swedish and finds it difficult to understand why recruiting women IT professionals in the UK should be so much of a problem.

"In Sweden childcare is so different, women can easily come back to work. Here, working full-time is very difficult. You have to leave the kids at school and often people have to travel a long way," he said.

Pfizer offers its staff flexible working to help them meet family obligations. There is no formal policy, but staff and managers are encouraged to agree working patterns that benefit the company and the staff. Options might include working three days a week, job sharing or working from home three days a week.

Hansson believes that Pfizer's strong commitment to corporate values, which emphasise respect for other people and teamwork, is one of the factors that encourages women IT professionals to join and stay with the company.

"When we recruit people we talk about our values and what that means. Respect and team spirit is very important. No one can be successful without working together" he said.

The department has encouraged its staff to visit local schools to talk to girls about potential careers in IT. The results have been spectacular, said Hansson. Most girls start off with a negative image of IT, but after spending a day with some of Pfizer's women IT professionals, 95% said they would consider IT as a career.

IBM's flexible working hours

Over the past three years, IBM Hursley' research lab has seen the proportion of women technical graduates at the site grow from 18% to 28%. During the same period, the proportion of women in management positions rose from 8% to 15% and two women have joined the lab's senior leadership team.

These statistics are the fruit of a host of schemes and initiatives across IBM that have attracted women IT professionals and a wide ethnic and social diversity across the organisation.

Six months ago, the company introduced a flexible working programme to help employees with childcare responsibilities.

The flexible contract allows staff to work a variety of patterns providing it fits in with the business. Some work four days a week, others take a month off in the summer and others work only during term time.

IBM goes to great lengths to encourage women back to work after they have taken a career break to have children.

It offers the support of "maternity buddies", who are other women in the company who have already experienced the trials of returning to work and can provide help and support.

Rebecca George, director of UK government business at IBM, said, "You can ask them all the questions - where should I go for hospital scans? When should I plan to come back to work? The buddies keep the women in touch with what is going on. Quite a lot of women have concerns about coming back and having a buddy is really useful."

The cost of childcare is one of the main barriers which cause women IT professionals to drop out of employment. IBM has tried to overcome this by offering financial support to help set up local childcare groups.

It also gives women returners an extra 25% on top of their salaries to help cover the costs of childcare for the first two years.

All of this not only helps the staff, said George. She added that it would cost far more to recruit and train new employees to fill the gaps if people left.

"We have found that in the IT industry you have to go the extra distance in terms of the creativity of the package you offer to retain your best people.

"The pool of experienced IT professionals is not huge and good people are always going to be attractive to your competitors. Once you have spent a lot of time skilling people up and they have got to know your clients, you do not want to lose them."

IBM also organises worldwide and European conferences specifically for female employees every year. Networking groups within the company help women learn from each other. The latest networking group, called Mindset, gives women the skills to present their work effectively in meetings.

IBM workshops introduce girls to IT     

Helen Pugsley, test architect team leader at IBM Hursley, decided to pursue a career in IT after being encouraged by a teacher at school. Now she is working with local schools to encourage other young women to consider careers in the profession. 

"One teacher at my school gave me the confidence to think I could work in IT. Now I want to give something back," Pugsley said.  Pugsley runs the Women in IT Chapter at IBM Hursley in her spare time. She helps to organise IT camps for girls in local schools and career workshops for university students. 

Research has shown that girls are discouraged from the idea of a career in IT between the ages of 11 and 14, and often write it off as a geeky subject for boys. IBM tries to encourage girls to consider an IT career when they are younger. 

This year 36 girls attended a week-long camp at IBM Hursley, where they learned about IT projects. They went through the process from customer requirements to design development and testing and took part in practical projects. 

"I see so much change in the girls as they realise many different things about the industry which were not clear to them before. They get an image that it might be geeky or just for boys, but at the end of the week they realise it is not just about sitting in front of a computer all day. It is very productive," said Pugsley. 

Pugsley and her colleagues have volunteered to mentor the girls for a year after the camps to help build up confidence about their technical abilities. 

Recently Pugsley put together a workshop for local Brownie groups to help them train for their IT badge.

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