Vanishing IT women

The drive to get women into IT is undermined by the number of female ITers leaving the profession, writes Roisin Woolnough.

The drive to get women into IT is undermined by the number of female ITers leaving the profession, writes Roisin Woolnough.

For the past few years, IT employers have been working hard to get more women into the industry. Unfortunately, it seems that as as fast as firms have been recruiting them, female ITers have been leaving the profession.

New research by the Women in IT Champions Group highlighted the extent of the problem. It found that in the first quarter of 2002, women accounted for only 36% of new IT recruits. During the same period, 46% of people leaving the industry were women. Typically, these women fall into two age groups: mid-30s and 40-50.

Many women take time out to have children in their 30s. These people may return to IT when the early child rearing days are over, but some choose a different career path. However, it is the other age group that concerns and puzzles the Women in IT Champions Group: women aged between 40-50. These women are leaving for good. "We don't know why they are leaving," said Rebecca George, chairwoman of the Women in IT Champions Group and director of UK government business at IBM.

However, everyone is hoping that things will start to change in April, when the government introduces its family-friendly policies. As of April, any employees with children under the age of six or a disabled child under the age of 18 have the right to request a flexible working pattern from their employer. The employer is legally obliged to give serious consideration to such a request and if they refuse it, they have to provide a good business case for doing so.

New fathers also get more rights than ever before, with the introduction of paternity leave for the first time. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, paternity leave is the fastest growing family-friendly policy being introduced by companies.

Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry, spoke about the initiative at the Women in IT conference on 22 January. "We have to enable women to be able to balance work and family," she said. "Any business that is failing to attract and hold onto employees from 50% of the workforce needs to look long and hard at its workplace practices and culture - and it needs to do it quickly."

George said many IT companies already offer flexible working and have gone to great lengths to accommodate employees' personal lives. "The IT industry is actually pretty good," she said.

"A year ago we had this hypothesis that the IT industry was failing to do things that other industries were doing better so we looked at other industries to see what programmes they have been using to improve the work/life balance. What we discovered was that while we are not making significant progress in keeping senior-level women, neither are other industries. It is a pan-industry problem."

There are a good many IT professionals and managers who would disagree with this sentiment, however. Companies may have excellent work/life balance policies in place, but the industry still suffers from a culture of presenteeism, with employees feeling obliged to work long, unsociable hours.

"A lot of IT companies have very good policies in place, but there is still a long-hours culture," said Anne Cantelo, project director at E-Skills UK. "It might be that your company wins a contract and that contract says they want equal opportunities, but it is quite obvious it will not suit a mother because it means long hours."

One Xtra! reader recently complained about a work/life balance meeting that her company scheduled for 8am in the morning. It is a problem for many employees when meetings are arranged before or after the normal working day or if they are required to fly half way across the world for a meeting then fly back for work the next day. And it is not just parents who are affected - you don't have to have children to resent work eating into your leisure time.

Both George and Cantelo believe that if employers really want to ensure their staff have a good work/life balance and can take up flexible or part-time working, they need to lead by example. "Senior executives need to practice what they preach," said George. "They need to take their holidays, delegate when they go away, not take their laptop with them when they go and so on. Otherwise, the company culture won't change."

If employees want to work part-time or job share, companies need to think seriously and creatively about how that can be achieved.

IBM has a big part-time working programme that is headed by a senior female part-timer who has three children. While working part-time can mean being shunted off all the exciting, progressive projects and being relegated to the more mundane work, George said IBM is working hard to ensure there are meaningful jobs for part-time employees.

Sometimes this is easier in smaller companies, where people are more used to mucking in and accommodating other people's needs. Absolute Quality, a Glasgow-based IT support and testing company, has 55 staff on its payroll, with 50% of them women and many of them mothers. It has very comprehensive part-time and flexible work provisions and has a pool of temporary workers on call to fill in any gaps or provide emergency cover when the need arises.

It is important to understand that parents have specific needs. If those needs are met by a company, chances are their loyalty and commitment will strengthen. Oracle offers various parent-friendly polices that are very popular with employees. These include a workplace nursery, emergency nanny support and holiday clubs for children between the ages of five and 14.

While George hopes that the implementation of work/life balance policies will encourage mothers to return to IT after having children, she also hopes a better working culture will gradually permeate the industry, thereby improving the working environment for IT women at all ages and levels. This shift in corporate culture may also stem the flow of 40-50-year-olds leaving the industry.

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