What is turning women off working in IT?

There are few women going into IT and those at the top are hitting a glass ceiling. To encourage women into the profession,...

There are few women going into IT and those at the top are hitting a glass ceiling. To encourage women into the profession, education needs to begin at school.

"Women in IT" is fast becoming an oxymoron. Few women are joining the IT profession and growing numbers are leaving it. Last week, Tif, the corporate IT forum, held a meeting with senior female managers from member companies to discuss what can be done to reverse the decline.

Only 20% of IT staff are female and only 5% to 10% hold senior IT positions. The number of women on computing degree courses is 12% of what it was in 1980, and only 5% of young women consider IT as a career option. Forty-six per cent of those who leave the profession at pre-retirement age are women.

The problems start at school because girls do not see IT as a possible career, the women on the Tif roundtable said. With today's teenagers more image conscious than ever, IT as a profession is a turn-off. "IT has a nerdy image, which is the key to the problem," said Anne-Marie Wolfe, Tif board director and former European chief information officer at Grey Global Group.

Girls see IT as a "Boys Own" culture dominated by violent PC games. "Kids think IT means Microsoft and PC games," said Lisa Beck, director of telecoms and networks at Diageo.

Moreover, the proportion of girls studying IT after the age of l6 falls dramatically when compared to boys despite good exam results. Although recent initiatives such as setting up girls-only school computer clubs may help, the kind of IT education girls are receiving is not.

The consensus of the meeting was that the school IT syllabus has little relevance to what is actually required for working in IT and simply serves to put pupils, girls in particular, off a career in the industry.

By emphasising only the technological aspects of IT, other aspects that could attract women are being ignored, such as using IT to create advantages in business. This misplaced emphasis also extends to schools careers advisers, the Tif members said. "They think IT is all about programming," said Marion Arundel, a senior analyst at John Lewis.

Girls may be discouraged from entering a career they perceive as being solely technology-oriented, but in fact many of the so-called "female" skills, such as better interpersonal skills and an ability with language, is exactly what is needed in IT at senior levels.

There is also the problem of ensuring women stay in the profession and do not leave prematurely. They do so, said Wolfe, at two distinct points in their careers: at 30, when starting a family, and between 40 and 50.

The post-baby drop-out may be familiar in any industry, but in IT it is exacerbated by two specific factors. The first is IT's image of being a 24x7 job, which is completely antithetical to working mothers. But it is, said the Tif members, a false image, even at management level.

"IT is seen as a very macho 24x7 industry, but there is absolutely no reason for that," said Arundel. "It is easier to work part-time in IT than it is in retail management or even teaching."

Arundel herself is proof of that, as is Blaston. Arundel works a 28-hour week over five days while Blaston works four-and-a-half days a week. Even those who work full-time do not buy into the 24x7 culture.

"I work a full-time 35-hour week, but I am not a worka-holic," said Cathy Richins, chief application strategy manger at German travel giant Tui. "If you work long hours in Germany you are seen as a failure."

Nevertheless, those who do work full-time acknowledge that their spouses are highly supportive in terms of childcare, and often have flexible lifestyles themselves.

As teleworking becomes more common, working from home is another way to give working mothers the flexibility they need. However, it is more difficult for managers to take advantage of this than technical staff.

The second disincentive to returning to work after having children is perhaps trickier to overcome. Because IT changes so fast, it can be difficult to come back after a gap of a few years.

"If you are out for more than a year you are dead in this industry," said Wolfe. "New mothers should not leave, but should work for one or two days a week."

E-learning and self-help networks such as webwives.com may be useful in refreshing IT skills for career-break women, and the government has set aside £1m for technology companies to encourage women to return to IT.

The problem of women leaving the industry at 40+ is a more difficult issue as this is where they start to hit the glass ceiling. "If I wanted to get any further I would need to become more 'male' and more aggressive," said Beck.

However, the glass ceiling is not unbreakable, as Wolfe and Smith - both heads of corporate IT - demonstrate. But a disproportionate lack of women at the senior levels feeds back to the reason why women are discouraged from IT in the first place - by not seeing a mass of strong role models who are women.

The Tif members firmly believed that in spurning IT, women are missing out. Wolfe said, "I have had a great life because I chose IT. I have become financially independent, have worked abroad, have got very transferable skills and have had a very enjoyable career."

Reversing the tide

"Our members will share best practice through mentoring programmes, return to work schemes and staff retention," said Tif chief executive, David Roberts. Guidance under consideration by Tif to combat the gender divide:

  • Change the image of IT professionals and work to express the variety of different jobs and skills required, not just the technical parts of the job
  • Improve the content of the IT curriculum in schools and incorporate more IT into general business degrees
  • Encourage better informed careers advisers
  • Find charismatic role models and use them as part of an ambassadors' programme to promote IT careers in school visits
  • Provide better support for women in IT and those taking career breaks.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment