Why retention is just as vital as attraction

Government and industry should act to address the gender imbalance in IT


Government and industry should act to address the gender imbalance in IT

Since the IT sector became established in the 1970s we have witnessed the highs and lows that follow every industry: growth, greed, explosion and implosion. However, one thing has remained static in this industry - the lack of women.

Despite robust growth in recent years and an employment market that continues to flourish even through a skills shortage, the lack of women in the industry is an issue that refuses to disappear.

Statistics show that just 32% of the IT workforce consists of women, compared to 36% two years ago.

The same research reveals that a higher percentage of women than men in the industry were promoted during the past year. Although this is healthy for the individuals concerned, it has had no noticeable effect on the bigger picture.

It is easy to point the finger or pass the buck, but we should all be prepared work as an industry to find solutions to this growing problem.

The issue needs to be addressed at its roots - and that is in schools across the country. It is usually the case that women are more attracted to the humanities than technology, and this is where we need to act.

High schools and secondary schools should receive more encouragement to nurture and develop the female IT talent of the future. Such initiatives should be government-backed, perhaps with some kind of incentive.

The government has addressed skills shortages in other sectors, particularly in the oil and gas industry, in an attempt to combat the impact of an ageing workforce, so why not commit to increasing female numbers in an equally, if not more important sector?

We never seem to hear the end of the skills shortage debate, but you could make the argument that the lack of women in IT is part of the problem.

The numbers suggest that if we had been attracting women at the same rate as men, there would not be such a shortage.

The government should be acting on this and employers and relevant bodies should also be holding discussions and implementing initiatives aimed at communicating the benefits and career possibilities of working in IT to new entrants.

This communication should also be targeted at university level. I have witnessed several other industries using similar tactics to drive up numbers and attract interest in joining the workforce.

Part of the problem is perception. For more than 30 years we have been saddled with the reputation of being a male-dominated sector so we need to get across the message that it is not an old boys club - and fast.

But women are missing a trick too. IT offers exciting opportunities, great challenges and career growth equal to, or better than, any other sector.

An integral part of any role in IT is communication, and women are generally better communicators than men so enjoy an advantage from the outset.

However, it is important that we keep things in perspective. I recently read about the problems the US is facing in attracting women into the industry. There, the gender gap is worse than in the UK. In 1984, 37% of US computer science degrees were awarded to women but that number has fallen to 16%.

Several bodies in the US are now tracking women through their careers as they believe that the numbers entering are healthy but are concerned about the high dropout rates.

The IT industry in the US recently showed 400,000 vacant positions and, as a result, a congressional committee was set up to investigate the falling numbers of applicants.

Perhaps, as in so many examples recently, the UK government will follow the lead taken by its US counterpart.

Retention of staff has always been a challenge for the IT industry, but it is time for us to address the balance between males and females, otherwise we risk losing important talent.

Promotion is fantastic for the ego but parity is required on all levels, particularly in financial terms.

It is no secret that we are hampered by a skills shortage that shows no signs of abating. Allowing women to leave IT will only exacerbate our current plight.

Richard Nott is commercial director at CWJobs.co.uk

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