Are men or women better at IT?
The old debate has flared up again in recent weeks following a panel discussion about 'Balancing Tech Culture: Getting more women involved in tech start-ups,' writes Liz Benison, Chief Operating Officer, Technology Services at Capgemini UK.
A blogger on the Daily Telegraph website claimed that IT is a sector in which "men naturally perform better" - a comment which sparked a huge response, pro and con, in the blogosphere and from Rebecca Thomson, a journalist at Computer Weekly.
My answer, based on wide experience of male and female capabilities in IT is: neither. We're different and that's great. Whilst not wanting to add to all the gender stereotyping in this debate, men may be more generally interested in technology and what makes things work. But in my experience women are more likely to possess other skills which are just as important, particularly if we are considering technology as a means of delivering benefits rather than for its own sake.
Study after study shows that rarely does a big IT programme fail based on the the technology per se. They fail because the requirements weren't understood, or communicated effectively, or translated adequately. Or they fail because the communication explaining how and why to use the technology was inadequate. Or because budgets and expectations were not managed correctly. To do all of these not only requires an appreciation of technology, but more importantly it requires other skills and characteristics, many of which society generally - and I think rightly - see as feminine. Empathy, guile, the ability to influence, patience under duress.
So, if we accept the need to use the natural talents of men and women working together, should we be encouraging more women into IT and if so how?
Like all facets of the labour market, I firmly believe that diversity brings value, so with women still drastically under represented in IT, of course we should be getting more on board.
As to the how, there is no silver bullet but there are a few obvious things.
o We need to get an image across to girls in schools and colleges that IT is not like 'The IT Crowd.' We don't work in darkened basements with weird characters. We work in large enterprises, with people, helping deliver real value to businesses and better services to citizens.
o We need to stop people leaving the industry when the inevitable family demands happen. It's shocking that the IT industry itself is such a poor adopter of the technologies that would help us work more flexibly and without travelling. We should be leading the way.
o We absolutely should not adopt positive discrimination. Who wants to be given a job on their gender alone? It's not exactly a recipe for success.
o And speaking for my gender, we need to realise how good we are! A lot of my female colleagues are absolutely excellent technologists, managers and business people, but some of the best women I work with are some of the least confident in their own abilities and unlikely to shout about their prowess. This isn't always true of some of my male colleagues!
Women in IT have come a long way, but still have a long way to go. Let's all work together to make sure their potential is put to full and proper use!