Women in IT – where are they?

According to the most recent data women comprise only 12% of the IT workforce in the UK, down from 15% last year. Compare this to the U.S where inclusion rates, albeit showing their own slow decline, seem to be about 25%. We clearly have a major gender imbalance issue in the UK  technology sector. What’s concerning is that this isn’t a one year blip, that percentage has been falling, albeit slowly, for the last 15 years: the late 1990’s saw the inclusion rate touch almost 20%. It would appear that as a “profession” we simply aren’t appealing to women to enter IT either at the start or middle of their careers. With proven career paths, high levels of work satisfaction, above average financial rewards (4th highest paid sector for graduates) and an almost a guaranteed lifetime of employment, something is going seriously wrong.

 

The Impact

This imbalance is probably having a material impact on business performance. The Harvard Business Review recently estimated that  organisations under perform by up to 34% in financial terms where women are underrepresented in senior positions. Ignoring such a potential pool of  talent will also undoubtedly exacerbate the growing IT skills gap in the UK and may result in long term “groupthink” resulting, possibly, in a lack of innovation and new ideas within IT functions. Homogeneity is not a good place for this profession to be.

 

The profession isn’t institutionally sexist but it is showing structural similarities to sectors which are (or were)..

in a recent survey 75% of people working in technology thought that the profession could do a lot better with more women. Technology is not, therefore, like those former bastions of gender inequality like law, accountancy and architecture, which were characterised by an institutional bias towards men. Many women, in these professions as well as technology, have broken through the glass ceilings to rise to the top on merit. However we are, as a relatively  new “profession”, exhibiting some of the characteristics of sectors which, in the most polite way, have a male gender “bias”. If the decline continues we might be benchmarking ourselves against construction and engineering in ten years time. Law and accountancy tackled this issue relatively successfully by joint and long term action by the professional institutes, employers and women trailblazers in their respective professions. Learning lessons from other professions might provide insight into tackling the problem but addressing gender imbalance needs to be an organisational goal and should not rely solely on progressive individuals pushing the gender imbalance agenda themselves.

The UK Education System needs to reflect the true range of IT careers available and not just a tech science bias

 

The BCS recent focus on encouraging  girls to study computer science is laudable but the school curriculum is still primarily focused on the more technical and coding aspects of technology and understates the full range of career options. Many women technologists I have spoken to were actually put off by technology at school and only entered the profession later through opportunities to cross train from business positions into technology. The numbers of girls taking IT at GCSE is just 14%, which goes a long way to explain the overall gender imbalance of the profession. The recent change in the curriculum from ICT to Computer Science might not change things one iota. A concern I would express is that those teaching IT in schools will, in the main, have no experience of the profession and won’t have an informed view of the different career paths available. Maybe encouraging more ex-IT professionals to take up teaching the subject might address part of the problem but if they are constrained by a curriculum that is too rigid the influence they will bring will be subtle at best. Additionally, even well intentioned promotion aimed at girls in secondary schools taking up IT can be lacklustre. “Women can be web developers”  is not going to inspire many. We don’t see the Legal profession saying “women can be legal execs”; their messaging is more “Women can be barristers, women can be judges”. Maybe we should turn the aspirational volume up a bit. “Women can be IT Directors, women can transform businesses” might have more resonance.

Whilst it is acknowledged that of course women can be highly successful in technical roles, the fact remains that only 23% of maths and computer science graduates in the UK are female. Bigger brains than mine have been wrestling with the issue of how to attract more women into maths and science subjects at university, but for those who aren’t attracted by these subjects or the perceived ‘geeky’ nature of IT, we could at least start by demonstrating that there are many opportunities in the sector that rely on interpersonal skills and teamwork rather than hardcore technical skills.

It could be argued that our whole UK education system is taking a too narrow definition of technology in providing skills as a route into work and probably only teaches subjects which are applicable to 50% of the available careers in technology. Furthermore secondary school ICT qualifications  are probably based on curriculum development biases informed over thirty years ago rather than what technology is today, which has a far higher reliance on and bias towards communication, analytic, organisation and change skills. However, there is growing recognition that the HE sector is not, in itself, able to fill the looming skills gap. Consequently, Industry and Government are focusing more on apprenticeships as a vehicle to deal with the issue. The growing range of UK apprenticeships on offer  might provide women with more opportunities in the sector than the HE route.

 

Recruiting women mid career has potential but needs to be managed carefully

If we have to accept that the UK education system is a tough nut to crack, and frankly beyond the influence of most IT professionals, then recruiting women into IT from business has more potential to redress the balance. When women do transfer into technology there is plenty of evidence that they benefit hugely from active programmes of mentoring, coaching and training to make these transitions painless and rewarding from both sides. In some ways there is almost an inevitability that the vast majority of women who do transition from business to IT will be filling analytic and project management roles. The risk is of course that a “blue room pink room” can occur but if we see these roles as beachhead occupations into other technical roles then it’s not inevitable that this will happen. I also think that once women are established within technology departments then it’s easier to recruit women into more technical roles.  We should not, however, underestimate the necessity to provide the foundations of basic technical competencies for anyone joining IT mid career.

 

Do women leave IT mid-career?

 

It might be worth some research into analysing the root causes of this anecdotal phenomenon. Many women do seem to leave the profession early and can cite work/life balance as a prime cause. Many of the IT job roles that women have historically been well represented in, such as project management, business analysis etc, are bearing the brunt of transformational change with inevitable consequences of working long hours, burnout etc. Many people, of both sexes, in these roles are bailing out after 20 years to pursue other careers. Tempting experienced women back into technology might be worth pursuing but we need to look closely at more flexible working arrangements including part time and consultative roles. The increasing trend of women developing their own networks of self employed associates as an alternative to 5 day a week contractors may well appeal to women who have had either had career breaks or who want variety and challenges outside of a traditional corporate career structure.

Is the perception of the “Geek ” putting women off?

 

It is arguable that IT has, in last ten years, become more “geeky” and more “toys for the boys”. Are we inadvertently creating a myth that “scruffy cool” and midnight coding is the personification of our industry? And if we are taking this seriously it’s also worth those (male) IT leaders tempted to act like aging rock stars and “out geek the geek” with AC/DC T-shirts and perpetual new app talk to consider that this might not be the way to attract and retain women!

Size might Matter

 

Company size might also may play a significant role in maintaining the gender imbalance. Whilst most large private and public organisations are active in acknowledging, and acting on, the importance of gender imbalance this alone might not transform the whole sector. Most people in IT work for smaller companies and 1 in 4 IT professionals are self employed. My gut feel is that there is probably a far higher proportion of women working in IT departments in corporates and and a far lower proportion in small companies or who are self employed. This could be an area to focus on. Tackling informal and subconscious gender stereotyping in small IT departments and supporting women becoming self employed in the sector might make a material difference in employment rates.

 

Summary

The situation is clearly complex and difficult to unpick. There probably isn’t an elephant in the room; more like several small hippos. We will need a very broad set of responses and action over the coming years. It needs to be tackled from many angles. Educationalists , employers, hiring managers, IT Leaders and recruiters all need to think about creative solutions to this problem to reverse the decline. However, women are doing more than enough to address this issue themselves. Informal networks have been around for years but there appears to be a far more organised response to the issue. BCSWomen is a good case in point. Women in IT are successfully organising themselves to present the sector as one which can provide women with diverse, rewarding and fulfilling career opportunities. Additionally there is plenty of research and publicity  being done in schools to educate girls and their parents that a career in technology is worthwhile.

 

In my personal experience women consistently raise the technology quality bar and change the dynamic of an IT team for the better. We collectively need to project the IT profession as one which offers real career progression and opportunities for women.  Maybe once in a while at an IT management meeting we should talk about talent and gender imbalance and what we can do practically in the short, medium and long term, and maybe this could occasionally replace the agenda item of “hey, look at this new tech, it’s really cool”. Just a thought. I will finish with Karren Brady’s advice in her autobiography that pioneers in any field need to hold the door open “as wide as possible, for as long as possible, to allow other women to march through it”. Wise words. I also think that men can play a small supporting role if only to act as an occasional door stop!

 

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