IT's fatal lack of attraction

Women often regard working in IT with disdain, but it's not they who have to change, it's us

For as long as anyone can remember, the great and good of the IT industry have been wringing their hands about the gender divide. Like most engineering disciplines, the field is male-dominated: like most engineering disciplines, there's no obvious reason why. Reports have been written, initiatives instigated and projects pushed, all with the very best of intentions.

Now, the latest report from the DTI shows how effective decades of action have been: in the last four years, the percentage of female workers in IT has fallen from 19 percent to 16. At this rate, the last woman will leave the industry sometime in 2022 — making the world of IT even more of a science fiction ghetto than it is already.

IT makes an unattractive career for women because of its curiously anachronistic culture, a culture that also makes it hard for the industry to see the problems or come up with solutions. For all its devotion to efficiency and flexibility, IT is thuddingly bad at providing either to its own. Working long hours in the office is often expected, yet the technology and the market is perfectly suited to working in far less rigid ways both in time and place. Balancing work and family life should be much easier in IT than almost any other industry: this is still regarded with suspicion and discouraged. The chance to tap into the benefits of diversity are being wilfully ignored.

There's more, of course. IT is marketed and perceived as being a job for geeks — the idea that you can combine technical knowledge with good social skills is seen as quaint, if not bizarre. Yet many IT jobs are as much about communicating with people as working with machinery: if a more balanced approach were emphasised, the field would be a lot more attractive to a much wider range of people.

Such people are desperately needed. There are few IT teams entirely at ease with normal humans: there's plenty of room for a new cadre of front-line specialists who deal with initial support questions while being accessible, effective communicators. Such positions would be perfect for young women with some IT interest, being immediately useful and providing ways to progress.

It's not a matter of working out how to appeal to women. IT must work out what's wrong with itself, that half the population won't give it a second glance. At the moment, it's acting like a clueless bloke on the pull, convincing himself that the right lines and the right aftershave will make all the difference. It won't. More self-awareness and a willingness to change — that's the required magic.

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