Is outdated terminology deterring females from roles in IT?

Senior executives discuss whether outdated branding and terminology in job vacancies is deterring females from the IT industry at everywoman roundtable

With figures indicating that more women are choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, there should be a pool of females waiting to be cherry-picked by technology companies.

But there isn’t. Only 17% of those working in the IT sector are female, so why isn’t the industry catching the eye of these talented women? This question was raised at a recent everywoman roundtable.

An online support network for women who want to advance their careers and develop themselves, everywoman, invited senior leaders and influencers of global technology organisations to a roundtable discussion held on the morning of the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards.

The senior executives who attended the event came to the conclusion that the terminology, branding and way in which IT jobs are packaged could be deterring females from applying for those roles.

According to the UKRC's Women and men in science, engineering and technology: the UK statistics guide 2012, of 620,000 female STEM graduates in 2008, only 185,000 were employed in science, engineering and technology (SET) occupations.

In 2010, nearly 100,000 female STEM graduates were either unemployed or economically inactive. 

The industry, it seems, must be doing something wrong not to attract these qualified women.

Roundtable speakers

  • Tim Skinner, Cisco
  • Sheila Flavell, FDM Group
  • Monika Fahlbusch,
  • Rosaleen Blair, Alexander Mann Solutions
  • Rebecca George, Deloitte
  • David Parry-Jones, VMware
  • Maggie Berry, Women in Technology Network
  • Julie Stone, Alcatel-Lucent
  • Karen Gill, everywoman
  • Maxine Benson, everywoman

Outdated branding

Tim Skinner, director of UK enterprise at Cisco UK & Ireland, believes the issue stems from the outdated branding and terminology used to advertise job roles.

When Cisco sent out a request for system engineering apprentices, initially all of the applicants were from young men, he said. When it relaunched the job specification with a greater focus on technology, rather than engineering, and relationship building, it got a higher level of young female applicants.

"Ultimately, we hired four young female and two young male apprentices, based on the enthusiasm and raw talent they demonstrated in the interview process," he said.

Sheila Flavell, chief operating officer at FDM Group, which made it into the Top Ten IT employers for Women in 2012, said when she asked female staff at FDM Group why they applied for a role at the service provider, she found they had been attracted by the company's Women in IT programme. 

"It’s about being proactive and alert about recruiting, and changing the way in which you recruit,” she said.

Monika Fahlbusch, senior vice-president, global employee success, at, agreed. “We brand ourselves not as a tech company, but as a growth company, to appeal to women in both technology and sales,” she said.

Rosaleen Blair, CEO of Alexander Mann Solutions, emphasised the importance of how a role is presented to possible candidates. “Packaging of the roles – I see that problem every day. It’s not just an issue of attracting new people into the industry, but also retaining the talent that’s already there,” she said.

As an industry, we do not do enough to attract women and make them stay

Rebecca George, BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT

Rebecca George, chair, BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, Policy & Public Affairs Board, and partner at Deloitte, noted that the way roles are packaged and the terminology used is also an "age thing".

"Many 17-24-year-olds are coming into social media and gaming roles, not traditional IT roles. As an industry, we do not do enough to attract women and make them stay,” she said.

Research from Intellect and Women in Technology – Women’s Careers in the Technology Industry, 2011 Report found that job advertisements with long lists of requirements can be a turn-off for females when considering which roles to apply for.

Of the females questioned, only one in 10 said they would apply for a job role if they only met up to half of the criteria. Over 80% of respondents said they would have to fill over three-quarters of the criteria for a new role before they even considered sending an application.

In agreement with this statistic, David Parry-Jones, regional director for UK & Ireland at VMware, drew attention to how men and women interpret job applications very differently. 

“If a job description says 15 years’ experience and a female candidate has 14, she won’t even apply for it. Women feel they have to ask for permission, whereas men ask for forgiveness,” he said.

More on women in IT 

Flexible working

Everyone at the roundtable agreed that flexible working can help make both men and women feel more at ease when trying to balance their personal and professional lives.'s Fahlbusch said it can be a challenge to ensure consistency when it comes to flexible working, which can lead to a sometimes rigid approach, meaning the necessary conversations around flexible working do not take place.

According to FDM's Flavell, women can put themselves under endured pressure, as “some think they have to be all things to all men”. 

She said she makes a point of telling the young women she mentors that you cannot have it all and that “something has to give”. “You can go 24/7, but you’re not expected to, as you won’t be able to retain that at the pace that the company is growing at,” added Flavell.

Cisco's Skinner drew attention to the sometimes delicate subject of working hours. “Some people want to start at 9.30, and it makes a world of difference to them. Usually the client is ok with it, as long as someone is there to call in an emergency, it is ok,” he said.

Maggie Berry, founder of the Women in Technology Network, agreed, saying most clients want to work more flexibly too.

“That’s because they’re faced with the same challenges,” replied Alexander Mann Solutions' Blair.

Highlights from the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards

Skinner said it is also about being an available and approachable leader, citing the case of a lady who wanted to change her working hours, but didn’t know how to approach the subject.

It is important to have support from the top when pushing out the message of flexible working, but what good is it if middle management does not share the same viewpoint? 

There was a consensus around the table that flexible workers may still find themselves missing out on opportunities as they could be considered as being less serious about their careers, compared with other employees that are at their desks all day, every day.

However, Deloitte's George noted that if you want to be successful in certain roles, you must be prepared to put the hard work in.

“Let’s be honest," she said. "There are some jobs in which there can’t be any flexibility. You have to work certain hours, and you will get a lot in return, both financially and personally.”

Additional resources on women in IT

Role models at every level

Karen Gill, co-founder of everywoman, made the point that “the fewer role models we have in the industry, the fewer we’ll have at the top” and highlighted a lack of role models at all levels of the technology sector.

"Some young women will see such a big leap between themselves and their female role model at the top that they can’t envision themselves that far ahead,” she said.

Gill believes this indicates the need to rethink, reshape and put much more emphasis around a framework for female role models to be accessible on all levels.

According to the Focus on the Pipeline Report, commissioned by Alexander Mann Solutions and everywoman, 25% of the female middle managers in the STEM sector surveyed said a lack of senior management sponsorship was holding back their progression in the sector.

However, Parry-Jones said the role model does not always have to be female. "It may be a man, but as long as the values are communicated well, it works,” he added.

Berry agreed that it is important to have different role models at different points in your career – to give women something to aspire to at all levels, and to be able to clearly identify what their next step would be or which promotion to chase.

Research suggests that many promotions are based on personal relationships, leading to a higher proportion of men having access to these opportunities.

Julie Stone, CFO and chief operating officer at Alcatel-Lucent UK & Ireland, said women network in a very different manner to men. 

"Men network to get on in the workplace, whereas women tend to network with each other to enable them to do their jobs better,” she said.

According to Stone, women want to be appointed into senior positions through their own merits, rather than feeling like they had a leg up. 

“For this reason, it’s important that this issue is jointly owned by both men and women, otherwise there is a danger that any progress will lack credibility. It is not realistic to expect a revolution, but we should expect steady progress,” she said.

Some young women will see such a big leap between themselves and their female role model at the top that they can’t envision themselves that far ahead

Karen Gill, everywoman

Adult returners

Personal relationships and networking can be a great strength for "adult returners". 

Returning to the workplace after long periods of absence can be a difficult challenge for both men and women – one which is believed to be a culture issue. “In the UK we have an issue with returning workers and offering jobs to older people,” said George.

Maxine Benson, co-founder of everywoman, said: “It is preconceived that if you’re 50, then you’re not even on the starting blocks to get a job. You have to be young and willing to work 24/7.”

However, Gill pointed out that flexibility is required of both businesses and adult returners. “You can’t expect to ramp off and come back 12 months later to the same seat, same desk, and there’s your same plant. People have trouble re-entering the industry, as things have moved on so quickly,” she said.

Concluding the discussion, Gill said the Focus on the Pipeline report backed up the key areas discussed, and a commitment to continue the conversation was imperative to strengthen the female talent pipeline in technology.


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