Why IT must do more to appeal to women

Over the next few years, the progressive retirement of the baby-boom generation means that IT departments will...

Over the next few years, the progressive retirement of the baby-boom generation means that IT departments will be forced to recruit more imaginatively in order to work around staffing shortfalls.

If IT has traditionally been a stronghold of the white, middle-class male, technology heads will have to look to a far broader range of recruits to fill their departments, not least because of a dramatic decline in young Generation Y adults moving into IT.

Maggie Berry, director of womenintechnology.co.uk, a UK-based online job board and networking organisation for female IT professionals, explains: "The industry is missing out on talent. With the perceived lack of candidates by 2010, which isn't far away, it's going to be increasingly difficult to hire males under 40. This means that people will have to look at hiring more women because they won't have any choice. So they might as well start now."

But, while important, this is not the only reason that IT directors should contemplate ways in which to broaden their potential resource pool. Another is that women are starting to become the primary purchasers of home, personal and leisure products and services in the wider market.

As Diane Morello, a vice-president and Gartner fellow, points out: "If women become the largest influencers in services procurement and there are only men designing those services and the applications that underpin them, it's a downward slope."

Mixed environment

But there are other benefits to be had from creating a more mixed environment. Not only does employing a diverse range of staff of both genders, different races and religions reflect the reality of customer, supplier and partner bases more closely, but it also brings new perspectives to any debate.

Claire Hamon, CIO of UK building firm the Rok Group, explains: "Evidence proves that a blend works better. If you run an all-female company, it might excel if it has an all-female customer base, but it's less likely to if it's targeting men as well so it's important to match the wider demographics."

A mixed environment also brings about a different dynamic. "If you're in a party with a mix of people, there tends to be more of a buzz and atmosphere than if you walk into a room with just boys or just girls, although that can be fun in certain circumstances too," Hamon adds.

But a key challenge in promoting diversity is simply the historical lack of women opting for IT as a career in the first place, combined with a recent surge in women choosing to leave the profession and apply their talents elsewhere.

According to a 2006 report by Intellect, a trade association for the UK IT and telecoms industry, women are employed in only 16 per cent of all high-tech job roles, including electronics, although they account for 46 per cent of the wider labour market.

The Office for National Statistics' Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings for 2006 indicates, on the other hand, that, while 18 per cent of IT-only jobs are held by women, this figure is down from 23 per cent in 2003.

Ongoing decline

But this decline appears to be an ongoing trend as a report from Cambridge University, published in 2005, points out - almost 50,000 women chose to drop out of the profession between 1999 and 2003, with the situation being most marked after the Year 2000 and in the wake of the dot.com bust.

Elizabeth Pollitzer, director at Equalitec, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes best practice in the recruitment and retention of women in IT, explains: "Companies cut down in general, but more women seemed to lose their jobs than men and, while headcount has grown overall since, women haven't caught up again."

Influences here include a general move towards offshore outsourcing and an increase in the number of migrant workers in the UK, with the Home Office having granted between 20,000 to 30,000 permits to IT workers to fill the skills gap.

But this still doesn't explain why IT remains so unappealing to women in both an initial and long-term sense. In Pollitzer's view, one of the problems is that girls simply do not see technology as "cool" - a situation that is not helped by predominantly negative media portrayals of technical staff or negative gender stereotyping both at home and at school.

"There are many examples of good practice and people doing innovative things with technology, but they're not going to the right places, so girls don't know about them. They think of IT as it was in the 1990s, being all about desktops and back-end databases, rather than technical transformation, which is leading us to a digital future," she says.

Moreover, much careers advice in not meaningful to a new generation of "digital natives" and fails to explain the wide range of potential job roles and occupational pathways effectively. "A job title and a traditional career as a 'database administrator' will not appeal to a 14-year-old girl," says Pollitzer, whereas working as a business analyst, web designer or project manager might.

Bucking the trend

But even women who buck the trend and opt for IT as a profession, are increasingly unlikely to stay the course. Not only do women tend to work in lower skilled and lower paid areas of the industry as they are usually less assertive in this respect than men, but, over time, they also have a habit of self-selecting out.

The predominant reason for this is having children. Berry explains: "If you have a career break even for a couple of months, things move on, but the biggest issue comes if you take a couple of years out. In professions such as accountancy and law, things don't change as much, but IT is very fast-paced, which is why it's a bigger problem here."

This implies that simply providing women with longer maternity leave is unlikely to help the situation as it simply means that their skills become even more rusty. "If all they get is a buddy system where they can talk to other people in the organisation and get the gossip, it's not enough, They're out of the culture, they miss training and face-to-face networking opportunities and this has an impact," says Pollitzer.

But the situation becomes even more tricky if women are away from the labour market for more than two years as such a prolonged absence generally hits confidence and self-esteem. This, in turn, leads many to "just try and pick up any job and so they under-perform". Moreover, as it can be expensive to pay for training courses to try and re-skill themselves, many women simply go elsewhere.

Even if they do decide to stay, however, a culture of sometimes long and anti-social hours can take its toll. Lynn Broadbent, group technology director at the EDM Group, which provides document scanning and records management services, explains: "A big issue is work-life balance. Women are often still the main carers in the family environment and so they have to be very focused and organised to juggle all aspects of their lives. In this day and age, you might think we should be able to have everything, but compromises have to be made so it's difficult."

Female friendly

So in light of all this, what can IT directors do to make their departments more female friendly? The first thing to think about is the recruitment process and the different ways that men and women may react to situations.

"Women are less likely to apply for a job that they don't feel likely to get and so they're often over-qualified. Therefore, it's important to recognise that women and men are often different in their approaches here. It's also important to learn to prize different things such as maybe valuing interpersonal skills as highly as confidence," Hamon says.

While she does not believe in positive discrimination, she does believe in equal opportunities, which means putting staff at the centre. "It's about looking carefully at how to give people the right support, training and encouragement and it's about valuing and rewarding them and giving them positive feedback. But it's also about balance and focusing on family-friendly policies."

This includes planning in order to create a predictable path through each project delivery cycle to preclude the necessity of cramming five weeks' work into seven days - a way of life that is not sustainable into the long-term, for either men or women.

Broadbent agrees. She co-chaired the Opportunity 2000 Action Group when she was at Barclays Bank, which dealt with barriers to women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the workplace, and likewise found that positive discrimination was not the answer. This tactic only led to resentment among the male population, which ended up feeling alienated. Training, on the other hand, was helpful "to open up women's sphere of thinking as to what was possible".

"It's all about awareness and understanding of the individual. For some women, expectations of being able to succeed are low, but for others, it's down to the family environment and the fact that they can't commit as much time to work. Each person's situation is different," Broadbent says.

Less committed

But she indicates that it is dangerous to simply assume that a woman with children will be less committed to the organisation or to her career. "Many women have the same levels of commitment as their male colleagues - they just need to be given the right opportunities. And flexible working across the piece, for both men and women, helps," she adds.

Any strategy that seeks to promote gender diversity and inclusion has to be driven from the top, however, and be backed up with coherent HR policies covering all levels of employment activity if it is to succeed.

"A lot of companies have good diversity policies, but this doesn't translate down to line managers because they have their own agendas. So if, for example, they're not assessed on how much effort they've made to encourage women, they're not going to do it because it's not part of their job spec. It does make a difference if they're rewarded for it though," Pollitzer says.

Part of this incentivisation process could be to encourage women to enter the IT profession through non-traditional routes, for example, by providing training or re-training to female workers returning to the labour market or those wishing to change career direction.

As for the thorny issue of career breaks themselves, Hamon indicates that it is crucial to keep female staff members in touch with what is happening in the organisation - and not simply by sending them the company newsletter once a month.

"It's about partnership. An employer has a duty of care towards each individual, but employees have an equal responsibility to engage meaningfully with the company. So line managers need to recognise that someone on maternity leave is as much a member of the team as if they were in the office each day. What it's really about is putting people at the heart of your strategy and learning to prize their differences," she concludes.

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