IT: Jobs for the girls?

How many women are there in your IT department? Probably not many. But does it really matter? All we are asking for is an equal chance.

COMMENTARY--Last week, many of the great and the good of the IT sector--employers and educators--gathered at The Savoy in London to discuss the burning issue of women in the IT sector at the "Women in IT: Engaging and retaining for success" conference.

While the good intentions of the conference and of the vast majority of those attending cannot be doubted and should not be ridiculed, I came away wondering what the problem actually is.

Speaker after speaker at the conference bemoaned the fact that women make up around a quarter of the IT workforce, despite being half the population. Executives from IBM, Oracle, Cisco and Dell, who between them employ a significant percentage of the IT workers in the UK, talked about the programs they have in place to attract and retain female workers. The secretary of state for trade and industry (and minister for women) Patricia Hewitt gave the keynote, which focused almost exclusively on 'work/life balance'--while her speech was tailored to contain plenty of references to IT and women, the issue of balance applies to both men and women in every industry.

A couple of things struck me at the conference. What, exactly, does the IT industry want? To define an 'IT job' is not an easy thing. Many of the tech professionals I know ended up in the industry because a hobby became a job (or a qualification that led to a job). An HR executive from Oracle at the conference reported that the company had tried hiring non-computer graduates and training them, but that it had been a failure. The company has gone back to hiring computer scientists, and because of the gender balance on these courses at university, their intake is likely to be predominantly male. It was unclear to me whether the speakers wanted more female techies--e.g. programmers--or whether they wanted more female managers throughout their companies to bring their (supposedly) innate communication skills to the industry.

However, women don't seem to be queuing up to join the IT industry--whether for the corporate giants or within IT specialist jobs in non-tech companies. They make up, according to limited research presented at the conference, around a third of applicants to IT companies--probably less if only technical jobs were included in the research. If companies are advertising or recruiting in a way that discriminates against women, then the problem is within their culture. Likewise, if a glass ceiling exists in a corporation (or smaller business) then that's institutional sexism, not an inherent problem with IT specifically.

One of the high points of the conference was a presentation about Computer Clubs for Girls, which are being tested at schools in the south-east of England. One of the girls who ran a club (who is planning to read philosophy at university) talked about her 'empowering' experiences at the club. Will she go into an IT-specific job? Probably not--but her knowledge of and confidence with computers may well help her a great deal in her career.

A civil servant from the Department for Education and Skills admitted that she didn't think the IT industry knew what they wanted either--making it even harder for the government to ensure that girls (and boys, surely) learn about IT, and IT careers with their solid earning potential, in an effective way at school. Surely this is the place to start--the integration of ICT (information and communications technology) learning across the curriculum so that pupils realize its relevance, and the provision of real role models (through the successful Ambassadors program, for example).

For the industry, though, retention seemed the biggest issue. Given that it can cost up to £85,000 ($140,000) to replace a high-level staff member, I can see why. It's retention that is cutting the number of women in the IT--they are leaving (according to the limited research of the IT Champions Group) after a shorter length of service, and at a higher rate, than men. Motherhood was blamed for some of the losses, and to their credit many of the companies seemed to be implementing (it's about time) parent-friendly working practices to slow the exodus. More research was needed into women in the 40-50 age group--anecdotal evidence suggested that many were leaving to set up their own businesses, perhaps sick of the constraints of a male-dominated company culture.

What the IT industry is trying to do in facing up to some of its diversity issues (I'm quite sure the number of women isn't the only workplace imbalance) is admirable. You can't force girls to be interested in IT. But you can ensure that schools offer adequate teaching to equip pupils with IT skills that may be a base on which they can build in the future--plenty of people end up in tech jobs or management through sideways moves once they enter a company. You can't make women apply for IT jobs. But you can make sure your recruitment, training and work-life policies ensure that applicants are attracted from many different walks of life to your organization. Once you've got them, take a battering ram to any glass ceiling that might exist. I hope that the initiatives begun by the Women in IT (and similar) conferences will start to change, over time, the perception of IT as a 'male' industry, and allow opportunities for people from many different backgrounds to succeed.

Laura Stobart is the Production Editor for ZDNetUK News.