Jobs for the girls: Can tech turn a corner?

Summary:The lack of female workers in the tech industry is reportedly getting worse, but some people and organisations are determined to change the situation

A host of workplace studies have shown that the most creative and effective teams are those formed of both sexes. Unfortunately for the IT industry, its lack of female workers is reportedly getting worse.

Since the end of the dot-com boom in 2000, the proportion of women in IT jobs has fallen by five percent, to just 16 percent; one-third of women in the industry now believe they are overlooked for promotion purely because they are female, according to IT trade association Intellect; and the pay gap between male and female IT staff is at 20 percent, according to e-skills UK, the government's skills council for IT and telecoms.

Some believe even these stark statistics are an understatement. Rebecca George, director of UK government business for Deloitte, speaking at the Royal Society in London last year, said the pay gap was as high as 22 percent, a situation she described as "outrageous".

George also suggested that women in IT were affected negatively by their own expectations and behaviours; for instance, downplaying their ability to do a job or failing to negotiate.

Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has criticised what he called the "stupid" male geek culture in IT, which he said was alienating women who had much to contribute to the industry's future.

Simon Page, director of permanent recruitment for Parity Resources, an IT recruitment company, largely agreed with the estimates of the number of women in IT jobs. He said that, of the people his company had recently placed in contract roles, 82 percent were male. Of those Parity had placed in permanent jobs, 90 percent were male.

"It's always been a male bastion, for whatever reason," Page said. "If you haven't addressed the male-dominant culture in the IT department, then you can attract as many women as you want, but they won't stay. I don't think companies do enough to engage women, to make it an attractive proposition for them."

However, the outlook isn't entirely bleak, as there are people and organisations striving to make a difference to the situation.

A platform for change
The British Computer Society (BCS), the largest association for IT professionals in the UK, is at the forefront of many of those initiatives. The organisation, which boasts a membership of over 60,000, now has an active Women's Forum, founded in 2006 to address many of the hurdles faced by female employees.

The forum encourages women to network, discuss pressing issues and gain advice and support from others in similar situations. It also organises debates and workshops on subjects such as challenging stereotypes and tackling the pay gap. This spring, it will release a guide on how to manage a career break.

"We want to build a profession that is good for women, but better for everybody," said Jan Peters, manager of the forum.

The forum also supports wider initiatives, such as Equalitec, an EC-funded project backed by businesses and academic institutions that aims to create equal opportunities for women in science, engineering and technology careers.

The BCS also backs the UK government's Computer Clubs for Girls programme, which aims to stimulate interest in computing among 10- to 14-year-old girls.

The society believes creating interest in IT among young women is critical to their future career interests. "We need to make sure girls are getting access to computers," said Peters. "Part of it is making girls believe they can earn a good salary [in IT]."

Creating role models
Another way of raising young women's interest in IT is by promoting female success stories in the industry. Part of the Women's Forum's recent work has involved raising the profile of selected role models to show women that IT can be a rewarding career for them, in terms of job satisfaction as well as salary.

As part of these efforts, the forum is now adding to the history-of-computing section of BCS's website with the names of some of those role models. "We want not to rewrite the history, but to add that invisible component — that women were involved in the early days of computing," said Peters.

Peters acknowledged that some of those earlier role models were not well known, but said it won't stop the forum's efforts to highlight their work. "We're familiar with Turing," she said, "but women were [also] around. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know who they are, because they weren't written about."

A list of well-known role models from more recent times tripped off Peters' tongue: among those she described as "inspirational" are Wendy Hall (professor of computer science at Southampton University), Trudy Norris-Grey (former head of Sun in the UK), and Mandy Chessell (the IBM software inventor).

Peters argued that businesses need to pull their weight too, and she suggested a range of measures that could be implemented to encourage...

Topics: Tech Industry

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