Jobs for the girls: Can tech turn a corner?

The lack of female workers in the tech industry is reportedly getting worse, but some people and organisations are determined to change the situation
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

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...

...female workers to apply for positions in IT departments. These included: a high level of maternity pay for a good duration; a golden handshake on rejoining after maternity leave; job-sharing; flexible working; and career breaks.

Of course, such initiatives may be costly to implement, but Peters is among those who believe they merit consideration because they widen the potential talent pool from which organisations can draw.

ZDNet.co.uk asked five of the country's top tech employers — BT, Cisco, Google, IBM and Microsoft — what initiatives they had harnessed to help them achieve diversity in their workforce.

BT: A diversifying telco
BT was first out of the blocks to respond to our enquiries, having invested in a multi-channel advertising campaign to recruit more minority groups into the engineering workforce at its Openreach division.

Few could have missed the upheaval brought about when Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, insisted two-and-a-half years ago that BT create a completely separate division to manage the country's local-loop infrastructure.

Among other results, the structural changes required BT to increase the size of its engineering workforce by 800 staff; the telco would not only have to service its own end-user customers, but those of its competitors as well.

It was a tall order to diversify such a large workforce, which was over 98 percent male at the start of the campaign. However, the telco was keen to drive change because it wanted to better reflect the demographics of its customer base.

One of the main prongs of the campaign was the use of advertising to attract more female staff. As part of this, BT bought advertising space on the likes of popular fashion site handbag.com and in glossy women's magazine Cosmopolitan.

"We wanted to encourage women to not confine themselves to the office, the shop [or] the factory. The message was: our job gets you out and about," said Dennis Gissing, head of diversity practice for BT.

The media campaign had some success in terms of garnering a response from women, although Gissing conceded that it also attracted a lot of men.

BT met its target of 10 percent of applicants being female, although men were slightly more successful in the interviews, leading to women constituting only nine percent of the actual recruits.

"We attracted around 10 percent, which was our target," said Gissing. "We're still under-represented in terms of women. It will take a long time to get from two percent to 50 percent. It won't happen in my lifetime, I suggest."

One of the campaign's success stories was Harjit Cholia, a young graduate from West London. Successfully recruited through the programme, Cholia became BT's first female, Asian engineer.

Cholia said BT had been "very supportive" and that her manager had been "great", making sure everyone was treated fairly. But customers haven't always been so kind.

"The way some customers react to me is a challenge in itself," she said. "The mindset is: it's a man's job."

But some female customers were so impressed, they have started asking for female engineers to attend, Cholia said. Unfortunately, BT says it can't guarantee to meet those requests at the current time.

Cholia surprised her friends and family by being offered the job. "In the Asian culture, it's not heard of to be an engineer," she said.

Although Cholia is an IT graduate, not all of BT's latest recruits have undertaken previous technical training: two of her closest colleagues gave up being housewives to join the company.

BT is keen to discuss its open policy towards flexible working, and this attitude has won Cholia's backing. She works an early shift each day, which gives her time to undertake a study course in her second favourite subject, hairdressing.

Google — engineering female success
Google is refreshingly open about its efforts to promote diversity. Its considerable work towards increasing its female workforce won it the much sought-after Women in IT Award from the British Computer Society in December.

"[Google] demonstrated an ingrained ethos to developing a diverse workforce and was also widely recognised for its career advancement and opportunities for women within IT," said Grahame Winman, business development manager for IT recruitment company GCS, and one of the lead judges for the award. "Its culture of supporting the IT industry as a whole, not just its own internal IT staff, is highly commendable."

One of Google's main focuses is Google Women Engineers, a networking group which the search giant's female engineers can opt to join, in order to discuss issues and share stories.

"We put a lot of energy on women engineers. We want our management to be tuned in to the challenges that women face," said Doug Fraley, head of HR for the EMEA engineering division at the search giant. "Our users are very diverse people, and we think we can address them better through a diverse set of people here."

Fraley said that the proportion of women in Google's engineering team was increasing, but he declined to reveal the male:female ratio. He added that, of eight engineering directors at Google, three were female.

Google also reaches deep into its pockets to fund...

...a dozen female university students who have shown exceptional promise in computing; the Google Anita Borg Scholarship is worth€5,000 (£3,800) over one academic year.

The scholarship recognises the work of Dr Anita Borg, a New York computer scientist who fought over many years to dismantle the barriers which prevented women entering computing careers.

Microsoft: Opening Windows of potential
Despite its size, Microsoft hasn't lost sight of the issues involved in attracting and retaining women recruits, and its initiatives to tackle the problem start at board level.

Gordon Frazer, Microsoft UK managing director, chairs an occasional roundtable of the company's most prominent female staff to discuss the challenges and opportunities they are met with. According to Dave Gartenberg, human resources director for Microsoft UK, such discussions might revolve around topics such as returning to work after maternity leave, contact with the workplace during maternity leave, or mentoring.

Microsoft also organises an annual, two-day Women's Conference to which it sends some of its most prominent managers, and it pays for several hundred North American student scholarships for three categories of under-represented groups: women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.

The software giant also encourages its employees to work flexibly, providing every member of staff with paid-for broadband at home, a smartphone and a tablet PC. That initiative is intended to help all workers, but it has proven particularly helpful for some women who are juggling both a career and childcare, according to Microsoft.

Gartenberg said that Microsoft's male-to-female ratio is 72:28, while over 30 percent of new recruits are female. He said that the ratio is the same for IT disciplines but that there are a higher proportion of men in "hard-core technical".

"We could always do better. We still have room to grow," he said, "but, looking at our peers, we are doing very well".

But Microsoft said it will not recruit women, or any other under-represented group, purely for the sake of it. "We are kind of blind when we go for that," said Gartenberg. "What this is about is removing the barriers to people realising their potential."

Cisco and IBM: A low-profile approach
Cisco revealed at its annual European conference in January that it had launched an "incredibly successful" female-recruitment drive, and that, as a result, just over one-quarter of its staff are now female.

The network giant's European president, Chris Dedicoat, told reporters at Cisco's Networkers event that the company had implemented a policy whereby a manager who successfully recruits a woman from outside the IT industry is given a budgetary refund on their recruitment costs as a reward for their efforts. The new starter is then placed on a special programme to equip them with the necessary IT skills and knowledge.

However, when approached for more details, the network equipment maker was unwilling to comment.

Similarly, when IBM was asked for details of how it encouraged under-represented groups into its workforce, the company offered no information.

Public-sector success
In the public sector, one shining example of positive action around issues of diversity stands out.

The ICT department of Barking and Dagenham Council in East London is staffed by considerable numbers of both men and women. For example, while first-line helpdesk support is constituted of mostly male employees, business support is mostly staffed by women, and application support by a roughly equal split of the sexes.

The department is run by Sarah Bryant, who won the British Computer Society's Women in IT award 2006 for her work in setting up a women's network at the council.

That award was won when the network was in its early days. "It's council-wide now," said Bryant. "We talk about learning, leadership and management."

Bryant is keen to show female IT staff that there are plenty of opportunities in technology careers and that it's possible for women to work their way up the career ladder even if they start with little experience. Bryant herself started as a relatively lowly systems architect.

She said that attitudes have changed a lot in recent years and that there are growing numbers of women in public-sector IT. "Ten years ago, people thought I was someone's PA. It still seems to be a man's world, but now there are a lot more women," she said.

One of the critical factors in retaining staff, particularly women, Bryant said, is providing flexibility. "Everyone is unique in what they mean by [flexibility]," said Bryant. "It's about meeting those needs. No one size fits all."

Bryant dismissed the suggestion that there is a pay gap and that women are being paid less than men for doing the same job. "I've always worked in the public sector but I've never come across that," she said. "You are paid [the same] whether you are male or female."

If the likes of Bryant are to be believed, statistic-induced doom and gloom about women's position in the IT industry is not reflective of reality. At any rate, the positive efforts of such individuals are starting to challenge traditional stereotypes and assumptions, and help mould a new future for women in IT. Perhaps this most male-dominated, and supposedly unfair, of industries really has started to turn the corner.

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