Many senior female IT professionals are considering leaving the industry because employers do not offer flexible working arrangements, research by the Department of Trade & Industry and IT suppliers organisation Intellect has revealed.
A survey of 42 women in senior IT roles found that most were considering leaving because they were unable to meet both work and family commitments.
The findings shed light on the declining proportion of women in the IT workforce, which fell from 27% in 1997 to 21% in 2004, according to the Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey.
Most female IT professionals interviewed said that increasing the availability of flexible or part-time working would be the most important step in encouraging them to stay in IT.
Twenty five per cent highlighted equality of pay, opportunities to work flexibly, distribution of project work and promotions as reasons to stay.
Denise Plumpton, director of information at the Highways Agency and chairman of user group The Corporate IT Forum, said employers' inability to help women progress in their careers while raising children had led to an exodus of female IT professionals.
Women were denied the flexibility to leave early to pick up their children on some school days or to cluster their breaks in the school holidays, she said.
"The problem is not for the first 18 months, it is the next 18 years," Plumpton said. "Not every school has an after-school club [to look after children while women are at work]."
The survey also found that women would be more likely to stay in senior IT management roles if the other managers in the business developed an awareness of family commitments. Others said they would stay in IT if their employers removed the pressure to work long hours.
However, some IT jobs make flexible working impossible. Support desk roles, for example, have to be done from the office.
Plumpton said, "The pressures on people in support are probably growing. I do see a reduction of women in support roles."
According to Plumpton, women in junior IT roles prefer to progress their careers in technology jobs that involve communicating with other parts of their businesses. Men in junior roles prefer to use the support desk to advance their careers.
"In my experience, women are climbing up the ladder that has the softer skills," she said.
Some employers, such as the Metropolitan Police, have a policy of supporting flexible working. Met IT director Ailsa Beaton said, "Considerable investment has been made to establish working practices that support the service's aim of being representative of the population it serves."
Barriers to flexible working
- Senior women IT professionals told DTI researchers:
- "My company offers flexible working and home working, but it all depends on the line manager."
- "Managers only pay lip service to flexible working."
- "Part-time working is encouraged, but not totally successful as it is a male-oriented engineering-type establishment."
- "Management have a diversity programme, but they are only doing it for business reasons. It was only introduced in the last four years since the high-profile court cases."
- "My company said they wanted to recruit more women, but when you look at what happened, in practice, there was no process of monitoring, so they never realised if the problem had been addressed."