Stop female IT brain drain

The IT industry must stem the flow of women executives from the profession and review efforts to lure female graduates into IT....

The IT industry must stem the flow of women executives from the profession and review efforts to lure female graduates into IT. Jane Dudman reports.

Attempts to recruit more women into IT by taking on graduates with non-computer skills have failed and the industry is finding it hard to stem the loss of senior women executives from the industry.

These were just two of the findings at last week's Women in IT conference, at which more than 300 women (and a few men) gathered to discuss ways to tackle the continuing female brain drain from the IT industry.

The IT industry is losing women staff faster than it can recruit them and the UK's largest IT employers are concerned about the waste of money this represents.

Richard Lowther, human resources director at Oracle UK, which employs 900 professional consultants, said it costs £50,000 to replace an experienced consultant. "I don't want to flush £50,000 away and that has to be part of the conversation with my business managers about what is going wrong if we are still losing women," he said.

Lowther also said customers as well as employers, had to become more flexible and open-minded about working practices. "We have to stop the nine-to-five style," he said. "If customers still expect to see jackets on the backs of chairs, we will never move forward. They have to understand they won't see the whole project team the whole time."

Despite this, Lowther remained adamant that Oracle would not repeat an earlier experiment of taking on graduates with non-computing degrees as a way of making the industry more accessible. "A few years ago, we relaxed that and hired some fantastic people, but the only ones that stayed were those that had the computing background," he said.

The number of women working in IT has been falling steadily over the past six years. By last year, less than a quarter of all workers in the IT industry were women.

According to a report by the Women in IT Champions Group, which represents companies employing about 10% of the UK's total IT workforce, 36% of new IT hires in the first quarter of 2002 were women - but in the same period, women accounted for 46% of all leavers.

The report also found that women are deserting the IT industry not only when they have children, but also at a later point in their careers. This drain of senior staff from the IT industry is particularly worrying, according to Rebecca George, director of UK government business at IBM, who chairs the Women in IT Champions Group. "This has a huge impact on the bottom line," she said. "There is an underlying issue that is not being addressed, which is about the culture within many companies."

Jane Curry, an ex-IBM employee who left to set up her own IT consultancy, Skills 1st, said she had gained a great deal of experience from working for IBM, but as an independent businesswoman she can choose who to work for, where she works and how much business she does. "I am prepared to balance the bottom line against the work/life gains," she said.

Julianna Lancaster, who left the IT industry to become a life coach, said companies needed to think about what women want from a job. "It is not about money," she said. "Women work for recognition and acknowledgement."

The female brain drain is proving more difficult to tackle than many people expected. George acknowledged there may have been an element of complacency during the 1990s, following the early initiatives of the late 1980s and during the years of healthy economic growth.

The problem is likely to worsen in the next few years, mainly because of the low numbers of women studying IT. Computer science remains one of the three most popular degrees in the UK, but of the 97,425 UK higher education students on computer sciences courses, only 25,315 - just over a quarter - are women. In higher education as a whole, 55% of all students are women.

The government has announced a number of plans as part of its programme to encourage more flexible working. In April, there will be a series of measures to support working parents.

But the Department of Trade and Industry's three-year Work-Life Balance Challenge Fund, which has given out more than £10m to help companies attract and retain women workers, ends this year. "We are keen to keep the funding going," said Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for Trade and Industry, but the DTI has not, as yet, announced any new funding scheme. A DTI official said the fund had been "hugely successful" but the strategy was being reviewed before a new funding was announced.

Delegates said a number of issues still need to be addressed, including a lack of role models and mentors for women in the IT industry. Initiatives to encourage young women into the industry, particularly through computer clubs in schools, have been welcomed.

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