Thought leadership debate reveals gender bias holding back female IT professionals

Bullying and gender bias are hindering the progress of female IT professionals, according to anecdotal evidence heard in a BCS...

Bullying and gender bias are hindering the progress of female IT professionals, according to anecdotal evidence heard in a BCS debate in December.

The BCS set up this most recent discussion in its series of "thought leadership debates", because the percentage of the IT workforce who are female has been falling since the 1980s and is now estimated to be below 20%.

The debate, held under a rule of anonymity, enabled attendees to discuss the issue frankly. Most of the 45 invited participants were women.

The differences between men and women at work emerged quickly. "There is a camaraderie among many men, and often an old boys' network," the debate report said. "People tend to employ people like themselves and, as men dominate at the top, this can only be self-reinforcing."

The impact of male dominance was felt in several ways. Some participants spoke from personal experience when they said young women entrepreneurs could get funding bids turned down because "you are single, female, and probably going to get pregnant", regardless of their actual circumstances.

Getting a man to front a bid for funding could turn rejections into offers, participants also found. Coming clean about this later could get venture capital organisations to wake up to their prejudices and be more positive about bids from female entrepreneurs in future, the report said.

In meetings women could find their ideas greeted with indifference by men and then received with great enthusiasm if a man raised the same suggestion a few minutes later.

The meeting heard that women could be subject to male bullying and harassment. Successful women seemed to unsettle some men, even when they were successful themselves.

All this does little for women's confidence, the debate report said. "Women typically feel they are doing a bad job unless someone tells them they are doing a great job; it tends to be the opposite for men.

"In job interviews women say they have some of the required skills but will need coaching in some others; men with similar experience say they can do the job. Women tend to remember only the bad news in annual appraisals. A rule of thumb for managers is to spend two-thirds of the time on good news for women, and one-third for men.

"Women spend only a fraction of their time making themselves visible to higher management, compared with men. Women need to raise their profile and realise their potential. They need to market themselves more effectively with their CVs, bringing out their achievements and potential." the report said.

These factors raised a key question: do women have to become more like men to overcome these issues, or at least behave like men while thinking like women? Is this possible? Or should women not deny their femininity and hope men do not hold that against them in work?

Although women seek to overcome these obstacles, employers also have a role to play, the debate participants said. Employers need to address issues such as the culture in IT of long working hours and the possibility of being on-call 24 hours a day. Such factors exacerbate all the other issues affecting female IT staff, the report said.

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