Women can solve the skills shortage in IT

During the 1960s, 42% of the computer industry was made up of female workers.

During the 1960s, 42% of the computer industry was made up of female workers.

Today the percentage in the UK has dropped far below that of the majority of European countries to 25%. Certainly there is a higher number of women working in the UK than ever before, so why this decline in IT?

Is it that the industry itself is anti-women or are British women making the choice to opt out of IT as a career?

Either way, with the continuing skills shortages in the technology arena, the industry needs to respond to this trend.

Most organisations claim to prefer recruiting women into their IT departments when given the chance. Yet only 8% of the UK's principal programmers are women. Women are seen as more likely to possess leadership skills, and yet only 7% of UK IT heads are female.

So are employees making it easy for women to enter or return to IT? Frankly, no!

Obviously, not all women are interested in parent-oriented benefits, but many women still plan a career around a family.

Unfortunately, recruitment in IT often becomes a quick fix of very specific up-to-date technical skills to fulfil an instant need. This can make life very difficult for women to get back into the industry after even a short career break. Some give up.

Also, the industry is still fixed in the view that 9am to 6pm are the core working hours, leaving part-timers with very few opportunities.

Contracting might seem a good choice, but most of the flexibility is around where and what you do, rather than what hours.

A poll of the Association of Technology Staffing Companies' member databases of contracting staff revealed an average of only 16% of female contractors - worse than in permanent posts.

Hot desking and teleworking seem to have made only a marginal change to the nature of employment. Surely the IT industry should be at the forefront of facilitating this trend?

So are women still opting out of IT? Certainly the figures suggest it.

The proportion of females on computing degree courses in the UK fell from 24% in 1980 to 10% in 1987, and has levelled at about 12% in 1999.

Are women really being discouraged by the strong stereotyping of the IT workforce as anoraks?

As with all stereotyping, this view of the industry is not an accurate description. However, if this vision is alienating females - or indeed anyone - then we need to work to change it, and school seems to be the place to start.

In short, the IT industry is not attracting women. I don't think it has made a conscious decision not to attract women, but I am also certain it hasn't made enough positive moves to actively encourage women to enter, develop and stay.

With further skills shortages predicted, the IT industry must do something now to change its image, and create a long-term, flexible recruitment and employment strategy to become an attractive career of choice for women.

Ann Swain is the chief executive of the Association of Technology Staffing Companies

This was last published in March 2000

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