IT industry 'still failing' to retain women

New legislation is coming in April to address the work-life balance issue, as government warns the IT industry to stop wasting talent

The UK has a problem retaining women in IT, according to Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry and minister for women. Addressing the Women in IT Conference in London on Wednesday, Hewitt noted that women are clearly under-represented in IT employment. "If you look across the workforce as a whole it is very nearly half female (46 percent), but if we look at IT, women make only a quarter of the workforce (23 percent)," she said. Hewitt quoted figures based on a report from the Women in IT Champions Group, which was created at last year's Women in IT conference. "The report shows the problem is not so much about recruitment," she said. "Thirty-six percent of new hires in the first quarter of 2002 were women. It's more about retention. The fact is that women do not remain in the IT workforce as long as their male counterparts." The report showed that women are often quitting as a result of motherhood and then failing to return. Or they giving up at a later stage in their careers, possibly because they come up against a glass ceiling. "This is bad news for women who are finding themselves in a declining proportion in a modern industry," said Hewitt, "and bad news for the IT business which cannot afford to lose or waste talent on such a scale." The DTI WorkLife Balance Fund is helping a number of companies address these issues; companies signed up so far include Sigmer, Taylor Made Computer Solutions, Elucid and EDS. Companies that address such issues do report returns on their investment. For instance, Merck Pharmaceuticals in the US estimates that for every dollar invested in promoting flexible working, they got seven dollars back. Many other companies reported lower levels of staff turnover and absenteeism, and higher levels of staff motivation and productivity. Hewitt was unable to confirm, however, whether the Fund would continue after its three-year run ends in March. Work/life balance legislation
At the conference on Wednesday, Hewitt outlined new work/life balance rights coming into effect in April. "From April 2003, parents with children under six or disabled children under 18 will have the right to ask their employer to consider seriously their requests to work flexibly," she said. Also from April, the standard rate of maternity pay will increase to £100 a week and paternity pay will be introduced. Paid maternity leave will go up from 18 to 26 weeks, with a further six months of unpaid leave also available. Industry initiatives
The problem of why women are not reaching the top jobs in IT is not something that can be fixed by legislation alone. Hewitt referred to examples of where companies are making an effort to address the issue of attracting girls into the industry. Computer Clubs for Girls has support from Dell and the South East England Development Agency. The Department for Education and Skills is now investigating a national rollout of the clubs. The Science and Engineering Ambassadors actively encourage women to act as role models for others to follow their lead. Volunteers from many scientific communities have signed up, with a large proportion of women from IT among them. In 2001 about 32,000 boys passed an IT GCSE compared to 24,000 girls although girls scored a marginally higher success rate than boys. The importance of attracting women to IT when they are at school was emphasised by Hewitt, who referred to the ITbeat competition launched in November. Sue Opley of the British Computer Society, who has attended various Women in IT conferences for the past 12 years, made the forceful point to the secretary of state that nothing has really changed. Hewitt parried by saying it was not for the government to tell industry how to improve its behaviour. According to Opley, the IT industry needs to review its embedded ageism and address reskilling throughout the workforce.

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