What women want

18 Jan 2007 View Comments
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The latest research by independent IT trade association Intellect reveals a worrying decline in the numbers of women working in the IT industry.

The percentage of women in high-tech occupations has dropped from between 19 to 21 per cent in 2000 to just 16 per cent – women make up 46 per cent of the UK’s workforce.

According to Carrie Hartnell, programme manager at Intellect, the drop in numbers is worrying in light of an increased focus on diversity and countless industry and government initiatives aimed at attracting women into IT.

The Intellect report, conducted in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry and carried out with help from IT sector skills organisation e-Skills UK, finds two main reasons for the shortage of women: a bad public image and the perception of IT as a geek industry; and a lack of understanding about the opportunities available.

Hartnell says the opinion among a lot of young women is that they will never rise above the middle tier in the IT hierarchy, and research does not dispel that theory. Intellect figures show 61 per cent of women working within the IT industry are performing database administration roles.

Retention issues will have an impact on such figures, according to Hartnell, who says companies are struggling to keep their female IT staff. ‘Women are not just leaving when they have children – they are leaving even earlier in their twenties,’ she says.

‘Perhaps even more concerning, is highly skilled women are leaving IT in their late 40s and early 50s, so we are losing highly skilled staff and senior female role models and mentors.’

Research carried out last year by Intellect attributes the low retention of women to a lack of flexible working, a male culture, long hours and an inability to be managed in an effective way.

But the shortage of female technology professionals presents a commercial opportunity for some firms specialising in the recruitment of IT professionals. One such initiative is web site www.womenintechnology.co.uk, a specialist online job board and networking site launched in March 2005.

Maggie Berry, the web site’s spokeswoman, says the response from clients was overwhelming and indicates a definite willingness from firms to enlist women into their IT divisions.

The web site has an active network of 2,000 female professionals and sponsors a women’s’ category at the European Banking Technology Awards, as well as the BlackBerry Women & Technology Awards.

The growing proliferation of these awards signals a recognition that attracting and encouraging more women to enter the IT industry is becoming increasingly important.

Charmaine Eggberry, organiser of the BlackBerry Women in IT Awards and European VP at RIM, creator of the BlackBerry handheld system, says the awards highlight successful women in the industry with the aim of attracting a new generation of women to technology.

‘More than 27 per cent of women believe role models and mentors are fundamental to getting more women into IT, yet an overwhelming majority of those do not know where to find these role models,’ she says.

But Eggberry says that true success lies not only in attracting talent to the industry, but in retaining women through more new work practices. ‘Flexible working, in terms of place and time, is something that organisations need to look at to accommodate and encourage different styles of working,’ she says.

‘We have to recognise that women will take a career break and come back into the industry, so it is not just about getting women to join the technology industry, but getting them to rejoin.’

Shirin Dehghan, winner of this year’s BlackBerry Women & Technology Awards, agrees that more flexibility is needed to attract and retain women, but she believes that encouraging women along a technology career path should start early.

‘I have to attribute my success in technology to my upbringing and the fact that I have five older brothers and was pretty much brought up like a boy,’ she says. ‘My brothers acted as role models and my eldest brother was a mechanical engineer with his own business, which made it a very natural choice for me at university.’

Dehghan realises she was the exception rather than the norm, and believes that encouraging girls at school level is the key to a better gender balance in the technology industry.

‘Since I won this award I went to my daughter’s school to offer myself up to talk to the girls who might be making subject choices, as that is when they need encouragement,’ says Dehghan.

She says IT is a male-dominated industry, stating that she was the only female student among 120 males when studying electronics. ‘I am not going to sit here and say there is no discrimination because there is, and a woman has to prove herself more than a man. But once you get past that point and you are accepted as an equal it doesn’t matter so much.’

Despite her acknowledgement that IT is a male-dominated industry, Dehghan does not believe in positive discrimination and feels strongly that everyone should be treated based on merit – whatever their gender.

And being a woman has not hampered her success, she is currently chief executive of technology company Ariso, which she founded in 2003 and which has now grown to a staff of 30. ‘I personally have not found being a woman is a negative – in fact, it has opened up a few doors for me because it is actually so rare,’ says Dehghan.

Which is why Dehghan’s solution within her own company is to employ open-minded managers and maintain a good representation of women on the board, which comprises three women and three men. But statistics within the wider industry show a different story.

According to Jane Binner, associate director at recruitment agency Computer People, 43 of the top 100 UK firms still have no women on the board and less than two per cent of senior executives are women. With an additional 18 per cent pay gap between women in the IT industry and their male counterparts, there is a significant disparity between the sexes.

Fewer than 20 per cent of graduates in IT are female, according to Computer People’s studies, and the sector is losing more women than it recruits year on year.

‘Our figures show something like 15-16 per cent of our IT placements are female, and where you do get slight differences are in particular job functions where communications and softer skills are more important,’ says Binner.

‘These roles are in business analysis, project management, service delivery and management. And this figure diminishes with seniority, forming a pyramid in terms of the number of women at the top, probably less than 10 per cent at director level,’ she says.

Despite the lack of women at the top it is not all doom and gloom, according to Binner, who sees opportunities for women as technology jobs have become more people focused.

‘I think IT has changed over the past 10 years in that jobs have become less technical and it is more about the business interface, and as the nature of the roles have shifted so has the opportunity for women,’ she says.

Such opportunities have to be communicated to women at a young age, so they are aware of the breadth of roles within the IT industry. ‘Women are just not coming into the industry at the bottom end in the appropriate numbers, and it all goes back to how technology jobs are viewed at schools,’ says Binner.

‘If we can start to influence the 14- and 15-year-olds now we can start to improve the flow even if there is no quick fix, and we are years away from seeing an equal gender split in IT. We need to give girls role models and examples of high-profile career IT women, but the problem is that it is a niche market and even if there are roles models they do not have that much visibility outside the sector.’

Despite the official figures, Binner still maintains that she has no evidence that women do not have the same opportunities as their male colleagues. That idea is echoed by Jane Tateson, a leading technologist at BT, who believes that despite still being a minority in IT, women do not have significant barriers against success in the field.

‘As soon as you convince people that you know what you are talking about and that you are good at your job that’s normally enough to get on,’ says Tateson. ‘I occasionally meet an engineer who has never worked for a woman before and to start with they won’t look you in the eye – but having the maturity to ignore it means sooner or later they will respect you just for doing a good job,’ she says.

Tateson attended a single sex school that was strong on science subjects, and believes schooling is probably where potential success in technology starts. ‘It is a combination of good teaching and culture which possibly means single sex environments for girls wanting to do sciences because they do not get shouted down by boys,’ says Tateson.

‘By university most people can hold their own but at the adolescence stage girls become far less confident in their abilities. I do not believe being a woman has made any difference to my career and I would be wary of positive discrimination because it makes people sceptical.’

Positive discrimination is a policy that insurance giant Standard Life has never adhered to, despite having an IT female workforce of about 30 per cent, well above the national average.

Keith Young, the firm’s IT director, says the favourable ratio of women to men within his 900-strong IT staff can be attributed to hiring workers based on their ability to do the job.

‘We used to take on graduate trainees from all disciplines and often there would be a higher volume of females coming in under that scheme,’ he says. ‘I remember in 2000 there was a group of eight trainees with only one male. Certainly that was an unusual year, but it is not unusual for us to have a good ratio of women to men in IT.’

When Standard Life take people on at trainee level, it has no shortage of female candidates, perhaps because it does not just advertise for IT graduates.

Young says the financial firm is looking for people with aptitude and attitude that accord with what the organisation requires – and it is quite prepared to train them, so new recruits do not have to come from a technology background.

The ratio of women to men seems to have been static, meanwhile. Young says he has not seen any changes during his five-year tenure at the firm. However, an unfortunate change occurred last Christmas when Young’s only female direct report left to work in another part of the business.

‘All my six direct reports are now male, we replaced the one female with another male who was hired again on the basis of merit,’ says Young.

And even when a woman gets to director level, a report by the Institute of Directors in November found that female executives are still getting paid less than their male colleagues.

A female director now earns an average of £60,000 compared with the average male director’s basic pay of £74,028.

Heather Campbell is one of the few women at the top of UK IT. She joined banking giant Barclays last September as chief operating officer within Barclays’ chief information office.

As a senior IT professional in the banking world she believes that being a woman has made no difference to her career progression, although she says in her experience financial services are better in that regard.

‘What I found in the world of IT is what is really important is your credibility, the knowledge that you have a learning mindset,’ says Campbell. ‘Even from a very junior position I have managed to get the respect of people because I pay attention to such things like that, so I don’t think that being a woman has made any difference to my career.’

Despite her own experience she does believe that the industry could do a better job of getting out to the emerging workforce at a younger age and talking about careers in IT.

The government has recognised the need to communicate the benefits of a career in the IT industry, launching the Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) taskforce in 2002.

The initiative seeks to address the declining numbers of women joining the science engineering and technology sector with a variety of different programmes and grants, right down to school level.

In 2004 a UK resource centre for women in SET was launched through a consortium comprising Bradford College, Sheffield Hallam University, the Open University and the WiSETi Project of Cambridge University.

The government has now committed a total of £6.9m through 2004 to 2008 for the operation of the centre – £1.5m of the funding for ring-fenced activities specifically to help women wishing to return to SET careers.

Brenda McMillan, director of project delivery at high street bank Lloyds TSB, took an eight-year career break when she became a mother. Now reporting to the group CIO and managing a £360m portfolio and 1,800 staff clearly demonstrates that taking a break was to prove no fatal blow to her career. She recognises, however, that she has had to work for her opportunities.

‘I think it was a little bit harder to come up through the ranks because I took a career break to be a wife and mother,’ says McMillan. But her success may lie in the perception she has of herself as a businesswoman that manages technology, even if she started off as a pure technologist.

McMillan has three women directly reporting to her out of a management team of seven and believes women should be fostering the talents of other women where appropriate, though not through positive discrimination.

‘I think there are lots of really exceptional women out there not being given the right opportunities – it is very easy to get really good women,’ she says.

It is not a matter of opportunities not being made available, but more a case of women allowing themselves opportunities, according to McMillan.

‘I think women are a little reluctant to market themselves,’ she says. ‘And I do think there is something to the old adage of men making slightly more of their abilities than women do.’

What do you think? Email feedback@computing.co.uk

Further reading:

IT industry culture failing women

Struggling with work/life balance

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