It is gender, not skills that still counts in IT

Women cannot win in the IT jobs stakes, no matter how skilled they are, according to research presented to a recent BCS meeting

Women cannot win in the IT jobs stakes, no matter how skilled they are, according to research presented to a recent BCS meeting

John Kavanagh.

The meeting also heard that women need to be more confident in their job applications if they are to beat men.

If men have the social skills needed in systems analysis and consultancy, they are seen as having great social acumen to deal with changing situations, while women are described as "nice". If techie men are loners they are described as wizards and highly intelligent, whereas techie women are seen as boring and withdrawn.

These were the findings of research presented to a joint meeting of London BCS Women and BCS affiliate Women into Computing by Ruth Woodfield, a lecturer at Sussex University, who has spent years researching the role of women in IT - during which time male dominance of the industry has grown to more than 75%.

According to Woodfield, the problem is that men and women bring with them the social status that accords to their gender in the outside world.

"At work, what you do and the skills you perform are never judged completely objectively," she said.

Woodfield's most recent research was carried out in an unnamed software company which claimed it valued social skills as highly as technical skills. But while male staff were given jobs with customers in which they were forced to learn social skills - not always successfully - women with equal qualifications and experience who already had the skills were described as "nice" but not clever enough.

Woodfield highlighted a need for objective measuring of skills that cannot be tested in the same way as technical knowledge.

Hazel Lapierre, technical architect and principal consultant at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, who has 25 years' experience in IT, backed Woodfield's views but held out some hope for the future.

"There is a confidence issue among women," she said. "If a job ad asks for 10 years' experience and knowledge of three software packages, a man with three years' experience and use of one package will have a go. But a woman will say, 'I've only got nine years' experience, and I ought to have a few more, to make up for that maternity leave I took.'"

Lapierre saw more opportunities for women now. "When I started you could almost know everything, but now you have to focus," she said. "You can be a technologist with in-depth knowledge of one area, you can understand business needs, you can design Web sites.

"Meanwhile more and more companies are talking about the softer skills," she added. "Women do not tend to come forward, yet this is an excellent field for them with great opportunities."

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