Set up full-time group to improve diversity, say IT women

Senior female figures in the IT industry say it is crucial that work is done to attract more women into the profession.

Senior female figures in the IT industry say it is crucial that work is done to attract more women into the profession.

The group at an Intellect roundtable event last week (Nov 14) agreed that if the UK is to remain competitive, IT employers will have to work harder to plug the skills gap with talented female developers and project managers - who must be paid the same as their male counterparts.

Gillian Arnold, hardware outsourcing executive at IBM, said more resources should be ploughed into the issue. "The IT sector should put forward a group of people, funding, and a location to work on this full time for a couple of years.

"There are issues that need desperate attention, and while the current army of part-timers is well meaning, progress is too slow if we are to make any headway."

She said she would like to see a target of 30% women set for the IT industry, which all companies would be obliged to try to meet.

Sarah Speake, a technologist at Google, said it is down to companies to market themselves better and improve their appeal to women.

"The culture of the industry makes it an unattractive place for women. It is down to organisations and how they promote themselves and their diversity."

The women all agreed the culture of the IT industry needs work, with Kate Criag-Wood, who set up her own web hosting company Memset, saying, "When people think of IT, they think of a beardy bloke with sandals, not Facebook, Myspace and Google." There needs to be more female public IT figures to act as role models, she said.

As well as contending with geeks, women also have to battle an "old boys' network" mentality. Speake said, "Until I ended up in Google I was very aware of this."

Claire Curtis-Thomas, MP for Crosby and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for women in science, engineering and technology, said an industry that was perceived to discriminate against part of its workforce would not attract women.

The pay gap is a major issue, with Gillian Arnold saying, "If you started at the same time as a male colleague and have more or less the same job, but they seem to be on £20,000 more than you, you are going to wander what is going on."

This could be one reason for the industry's problem with retention. Sue Davies, HR director at IT services company Sopra, said many women in their 40s had either retired or moved away from IT. "This concerns me," she said. "What is driving them out?"

The industry also needs to watch its working practices, the group said.

Women need flexibility to help them look after families, child care and retraining after maternity leave. Speake said, "Too many are dropping out after having families because they cannot reach a suitable arrangement with their company. They are reluctantly leaving, and it worries me there is no standard to adhere to. These issues are present in most industries but are particularly extreme in ours."

Curtis-Thomas said women did not want to "get rid of their caring role in society," but they do want to be able to work as well - and it is down to employers to make this possible. "Bad times are really coming in terms of recruitment in this industry and the problem will become more challenging," she warned.

She said these arguments should be articulated to government and initiatives backed with funding.

But throwing money at the problem will not be enough. "The problem is getting women to make the career choice, and then hanging on to them."

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment