MP: Tech needs more female role models

Claire Curtis-Thomas, the first female professional engineer to become an MP, has called for companies to proactively market the success of high-profile women in IT

Better marketing of successful females in IT is needed to attract women to the industry, according to the first female engineer to become an MP.

Claire Curtis-Thomas (pictured), MP for Crosby in Merseyside, said on Wednesday that a positive "psychological impression" was essential if more women were to be attracted to the technology sector. Technology is a sector where many of the visible role models are male.

"Even if you represent organisations that cannot attract women, could you not at least show an image of diversity in your publications?" asked Curtis-Thomas, referring to companies' marketing literature. 

Speaking during a roundtable discussion on the issue of women in IT, convened by IT trade body Intellect, Curtis-Thomas added: "Ditto when you are looking for spokespeople. In IT, we don't tend to talk about things outside of our speciality, [thus ending up with] totally inarticulate, grey-headed baldy gits fronting a youth endeavour when they have practically ossified on the spot."

Curtis-Thomas' words were echoed by Kate Craig-Wood, the managing director of hosting company Memset. "This is something that we, as female IT leaders, have got wrong," she said. "I have recently raised my visibility as the face of my company, and our growth rate has since gone up. That is good for the company, but I am also hoping that other women will see it [and be encouraged]."

IBM's Gillian Arnold, who chairs Intellect's Women in IT Forum, said there had been an "effort in the last five years to bring women into the limelight", but that the industry was "haemorrhaging" women. Twenty percent of the IT industry was female in 2000, but that figure is now closer to 15 percent, she said.

Arnold nonetheless praised children's TV for starting to include more technologically savvy girls in its programming.

Google's UK industry leader for technology, Sarah Speake, suggested that Suzi Perry, a presenter on TV's The Gadget Show, was another positive role model.

The debate over a perceived "male geek culture" flared up in September when the internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee called on the industry to stop "alienating people who [could be] smarter and better engineers".

Speake alluded to the same "boys' club mentality" during Wednesday's discussion, claiming that, until she had joined Google, she had been "very much a victim of the old boys' network".

"At the moment, IT is not perceived [by women] as an attractive industry in which to work," said Speake, who suggested that the perception begins to form while children are at school, where some still see computing as a male activity.

The Google technologist claimed that one reason for the lack of high-profile female IT professionals was the wider issue of women not returning to work after starting families. "It is definitely a legacy issue — the people who should be at the top of our industry have opted out," she said. "I have seen too many peers dropping out of the industry after starting a family because they cannot reach an appropriate agreement with their former employers. We lose a lot of very highly skilled women. Women who are returning are much more efficient and very committed."

Arnold suggested that the multi-tasking skills acquired by mothers were undervalued in an IT world that revolves around strong project management. "It is a myth that the IT industry moves too fast for us to catch up after pregnancy," she added.

Curtis-Thomas, a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said that such recruitment attitudes — both gender- and age-based — would change in the near future as the UK population becomes older, and as Asian companies start to poach more engineers from companies in the West. "The [availability of qualified IT workers in the UK] is going to get worse, not better, because of demography," she said. "Companies' attitudes will change: 30 years of age will become more attractive."

One issue that divided the panel, however, was the question of whether new technologies like videoconferencing would make it easier for women to work from home, thus balancing their family and work lives. While IBM's Arnold suggested that the cost benefits of such an approach would encourage companies to move towards more flexible working, and Curtis-Thomas extolled the environmental benefits of videoconferencing, other delegates said flexible working had limited appeal.

"Mobile working is very handy, but do I want to get into the habit of it? Categorically not," said Speake, adding that "there is something very attractive about the collective output of people sitting around a table".

Memset's Craig-Wood, meanwhile, said she was "partially sold" on the benefits of remote working, but trials in her company had not been successful. "We used to have people working from home, but we abandoned it," she said. "Everybody hated it [because] they felt isolated."