Do women want IT?

Jane Oliver: At a conference all about Women in IT, the speakers discussed how to encourage women (of all ages) into IT and - more importantly - how to keep them there.

Last week, I attended the "Women in IT: Engaging and retaining for success conference". My interest? I am a woman and, if you broke me in half, I probably have "geek" written all the way through me like a stick of rock.

As the conference agenda had promised, there were many motivational speakers waxing lyrical about how they, as women, had got into IT. They regaled us with stories of how tough it had been. One woman even went as far to tell us that throughout her working life for each of her three pregnancies she'd only taken three days off (I was unsure whether that was for each child or for all three but felt it would be churlish to interrupt).

There was also the archetypal "woman in IT" (and I do recognise her): blonde, biggish, brusque but eminently likeable. You could just tell she would be at home standing at the pub bar swearing about the 'lusers' with a pint in her hand. This particular woman is the Group IT Manager for Chelsea FC, Elaine Clark. Clark had her own top tips on how to succeed and prosper as a woman in the IT world. A rough précis of her advice is: firstly, decide what you want to do, and then set about deciding how you are going to get there. Always ask questions, write everything down, have a go yourself (you will never learn until you make a mistake or two), don't have an attitude, accept that you don't have to be better than the men, grit your teeth, set your mind straight and get to it!

There were others but by far the most public figure was Patrica Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry, minister for women and e-minister. In her keynote speech she pointed out that four years ago the proportion of men to women employed in IT was appalling and pointed out that "it is still challenging" -- by which I understood 'still appalling'. She then went on to say that the only way women will win in the IT world is by "championing this initiative".

Hewitt's bugbear for the day was definitely retention. She said that recruitment was still an issue but keeping the women once you've recruited them was definitely a problem: "They're coming in but they're just not staying." She supplied a number of reasons for this. Some women leave to have children and just don't come back. Others are discouraged once they hit the glass ceiling. "This is very bad news for the IT sector. Costs of recruitment and then replacement are high," said Hewitt. "This is a burning business issue, not just a female issue."

Hewitt said that we should be looking at a number of imaginative solutions to this problem. She talked a great deal about "Work/Life" options, which could involve reorganising work time by, for example, compressing the five-day working week to four days or simply by reorganising the working week. Hewitt claimed that throughout Europe these types of practices are being deployed with no loss in productivity or staff turnover: in fact, quite the opposite. As a by-product they have been seen to actually reduce stress levels.

In the UK during April 2003 there will be a ream of legal changes including improved maternity pay and paternity leave. Employees will gain the right to approach their employer with an amended work schedule -- the employer can only turn the proposal down for strictly business reasons.

Hewitt's worries were reiterated by the Midlands Deloitte and Touche practice and senior partner, Jane Lodge. When I talked to Lodge she stated that when Deloitte and Touche recruit graduates they get a 50:50 male/female split. What is disconcerting is that this equal split is not reflected further up in the business. When asked why women leave she gave the standard reply -- maternity issues and hitting the glass ceiling -- but added: "You lose them because they don't want to come back." She added that "women have the talent but not the ambition."

I was left wondering why we should be even trying to force women back into an industry they clearly wanted to leave. Lodge's answer is that by missing out on that proportion of the population, "we may be losing some of our rising stars."

This led me to the eternal question -- 'What do women want?' It seems they don't particularly want IT in the form they're being spooned it currently. If you want my view, I think what really needs to be done is that the industry needs to change some of its rather misogynistic ways before women will really want to come into and stay in IT.


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