Where are the women?

Something must be wrong when a dynamic industry full of career opportunities is being rejected by so many women.

Something must be wrong when a dynamic industry full of career opportunities is being rejected by so many women.

Fortunately, serious attempts to redress the balance are now underway.

If as many women as men were entering the IT sector, and they were directed towards the areas where skills are most needed, there would be no such thing as a skills shortage. This is why the Government has decided to launch a series of campaigns to lure women into the industry.

Not only are current statistics lamentable but they have got worse - the percentage of female IT professionals in the UK fell from 26% to 18% in 2001. In software engineering women account for just 8% of the workforce.

Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt has expressed her support for efforts to promote IT as a career for women. "An IT industry dominated by men is only using half the available talent and creativity," she said at the joint DTI/DfES Women in IT conference. "This is a particular cause for concern in an industry that, despite current economic conditions, has a growing demand for skilled labour."

But what is it about our industry that makes it so unattractive to women? The work is varied, stimulating, flexible and, compared to other industries, well paid. IT should be overwhelmed with potential candidates.

According to research carried out by the E-Skills National Training Organisation, the industry fails to get this positive image across. Many women are put off by negative stereotypes while still in their teens. IT is still plagued by the reputation of being full of geeks and loners who spend their days glued to computer screens.

A government scheme to set up computer clubs for girls aged 11 to 13 aims to show them that IT is fun and can provide a career full of excellent opportunities.

Another initiative to engender enthusiasm among young people is the introduction of so-called ambassadors who will act as role models and help out in the classroom. The ambassadors will be people working in IT, science, engineering and maths. Hewitt has expressed a wish that at least half of these ambassadors should be women. IBM has pledged to target 200 of its staff for the scheme.

Female role models are seen as a key part of the strategy to help dispel the myth that IT is a male-only club. Virginia Ainscough, an account manager at IT company Logica, has been chosen by the E-Skills NTO as an example of how women can be successful in IT. However, she nearly rejected a career in the industry herself.

"When I left university I was turned off IT because I wanted a people job," she says. "I ended up working for a trade association and was sent on a course for public speaking where, to my surprise, I met some IT professionals - I wondered what on earth they were doing on such a course."

After realising there was more to the IT industry than she had thought, Ainscough joined up and worked her way up the ranks from Cobol programmer to IT consultant.

She believes the industry is more attractive to women now than when she first joined, as there are even greater opportunities to use design, communication and teamwork skills. "In a way, you need to be less technical now than you did then," she says. "So, although very technical skills are essential for some projects, there are many more where other skills play a more important role."

Despite this, only 20% of graduates who apply to Logica are female.

It is not only those in education who need to have their perception of IT altered. Another government scheme is specifically targeting women who have taken time out of their careers to raise a family.

The Web Wise Women programme, which was launched last year in Northern Ireland aims to give women returning to work the skills they need to find a job in the technology industry. The 26-week course includes 10 weeks of computer and marketing training and a 16-week placement.

Madeleine McMillan took the course after seeing it advertised in the local press. "I had been out of work for a year and a half," she says. "I had just given birth to my second child when I decided I wanted to get back to work."

Before giving up work McMillan was a kitchen designer and has a degree in marketing. She says she initially felt intimidated by the idea of working in IT.

BT supplied her with a PC and Internet access at home, Parity provided the training and government funding took care of the cost of the childcare. She was trained to design basic Web sites, set up databases, use the Internet, and become proficient in all the main Microsoft packages.

McMillan did her placement with BT. The company offered her a permanent position as an e-channel content manager at the end of the course.

"I do a lot of reporting on response codes, testing of URLs and setting up of sub-domain sites," she explains. "I wouldn't have understood any of this without the course."

Other students have also been taken on by their placement companies and one has even set up her own Web design agency.

Women returning to work after a career break often still have family commitments, so promoting flexible working hours in the IT sector could give recruitment a huge boost. To this end, the Government has allocated £1m to the industry from the Work Life Balance Challenge Fund to help companies develop flexible working schemes.

Julia Vale, an analyst at KPMG, believes the ratio of women in IT has reached a low point because a lot of IT companies do not know what to do about the gender imbalance or do not take enough interest in it.

"The problem is not that women leave to have families, it is that they either don't join in the first place or find that they have limited prospects when they are there," she says. "To win the war for talented women, the IT industry needs to accept that men and women are different, and to support women in the workplace by putting women on the agenda."

Further information

Advice for women seeking a career in IT is available at www.itcompass.net/women

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