Gender imbalance within the IT sector remains a hot topic, given that men currently make up a whopping 83 per cent of the profession. So what, if anything, should the sector do about it?
Sexism in the workplace is a thorny subject. Many women feel they have been subjected to it but in most cases they lack tangible evidence. In addition to this, being passed over for promotion or a pay rise on the grounds of gender is very difficult to prove.
That said, it does not necessarily follow that sexism is causing the gender divide in IT: after all, is there not something in the male psyche that makes men more predisposed towards working with technology? Isn’t it just the case that men and women actually choose careers that reflect their interests?
According to Maggie Berry, managing director at Womenintechnology.co.uk, a body set up to encourage more women into IT, sexism certainly does exist in the IT industry, but its pervasiveness is difficult to measure.
“I’ve heard mixed reports. Some women have reported issues at work, but they are normally caused by an immediate line manager rather than widespread sexism throughout an organisation. Equally, many women have said that they have had no issue and that they’ve been rewarded on merit,” she said.
However, there is no doubt that businesses would certainly benefit from hiring more women. Research firm McKinsey, which publishes an annual report entitled Women Matter: Gender Diversity, a Corporate Performance Driver, has found that the companies where women are most strongly represented at board or top-management level are also the companies that perform best, both on an organisational and a financial level.
According to a study by the European Commission, diversity programmes have had a positive impact on employee motivation for 58 per cent of the companies that have implemented them. Some 57 per cent also said that such programmes improved customer satisfaction, while 69 per cent of the companies noted an improvement in their brand image.
And in practical terms, the “feminine touch” is also important for improving communication in the workplace, according to Marie Alexander, managing director at geolocation services firm Quova.
“I was an executive in one company and the only female in that team. When I decided to leave, a member of the team told me that he wanted to bring another woman in because he learned that I had brought a feminine touch that they hadn’t realised they needed,” she said.
“Having a mixed-gender workforce opens up communications. Women are much more likely to ask: ‘What is it that is bothering you?’ Or: ‘I’m concerned you two aren’t communicating with each other’. A woman is more likely to ask these questions, and men are more likely to respond to them. If two men are sitting at a table, it’s likely that neither will even bring up such issues and those things affect the workplace more than people think.”
So there is strong evidence that gender diversity has a positive impact on businesses, but what can be done to encourage more women into the IT industry?
One approach would be to change the perception of IT within schools, with a view to encouraging more girls to enter the industry.
“You see it all the time: girls who grow up loving maths, and then they reach high school and don’t want to admit the fact that they have strong maths skills,” said Barbara Nelson, chief technology officer at mobility services firm iPass.
“Instead, they gravitate towards industries with a more ‘human touch’.”
Another approach would be to change the nature of the IT industry itself, to make it more interesting to more women - and this change is actually taking place. The move towards a more service-oriented approach to IT provision arguably plays to the strengths of many women. The growing importance of managing relationships between external suppliers might draw on more “feminine” skills than on management of on-premise architecture, for which deep in-house technical knowledge tends to be required.
This change lends weight to Nelson’s view that “the notion that IT is the career choice of the geeky IT guy with no social skills is one that’s long out of date”.