Women in IT often end up feeling like "lone wolves”, not only because 83 per cent of the technology workforce is male, but also because many feel that their skills are undervalued.
As a result, 40 per cent more women than men choose to leave their jobs after 10 years in the industry, according to Belinda Parmer, CEO of campaigning agency Lady Geek, which aims to make technology and games more accessible to women.
Speaking at FDM's Women in IT event at Glaziers Hall, Parmer said that although women are some of the most enthusiastic consumers of technology, they are still not adequately represented in the technology workforce.
This is partly an image problem, she said, claiming that the biggest issue for young girls is that they do not see technology as a creative career.
“We need to shatter the perception that people who work in technology are pizza-guzzling IT nerds who can't get a girlfriend and never see sunlight.”
This can partly be achieved through better IT education, but even those that do overcome the stereotype and succeed in breaking into the IT industry are often not made to feel wanted.
Parmer controvertially pointed to the studies of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen who came up with a method of classifying people on the basis of empathy (the drive to identify a person's thoughts and feelings) and systems (the drive to analyse or construct a system).
According to Baron-Cohen's theory, more women are empathisers and more men are systemisers. However, Parmer claims that technology companies currently employ about 85 percent systemisers, meaning that the empathisers find it difficult to fit in.
“The systemiser devises a structure that suits the systemiser, and often the values that an empathiser brings – collaboration, communication, etc. – don't feel valued in this systemiser culture,” said Parmer.
“The truth is, there has never been a more important time for companies to understand the empathisers, and how to deliver a truly fantastic customer experience.”
She said that companies need to learn that having empathetic employees can benefit their business, and recommends training staff (both male and female) to be empathetic.
The focus on empathy sparked some unease among women who attended the event. Some attendees felt it could be construed as a more sophisticated version of the gender stereotyping that they were concerned to overcome.
Lyn Grobler, VP and CIO of Functions at BP, said that another way to make female technology workers feel valued is to enable more flexible working practices that allow women to stay in work for longer if they choose to have families.
“We've got to find some role models that are quite senior in the organisation who will start working in this way, so that more junior people will start seeing it as acceptable,” said Grobler.
“There's still this perception that if you're not there full time, you're not serious about your career. So we've got past the HR model, the next one is looking for role models.”
Angela Morrison, CIO of Direct Line Group, said that using technologies such as video conferencing and secure networks to enable flexible working is also an important tool in driving women beyond the middle management level.
“I have had some great middle management females working for me, but none of them wanted to step up. They said no, I'm very happy, because where I sit in the organisation I am in control of what I do. So when I want to go home I can just pack up and go home. If I go up one level I lose control,” she said.
“We do need to drive woman beyond middle management. As a working society we need to address the way we operate.”
Parmer added that the way job applications are written has a big influence on who applies for them. Men tend to apply for jobs if they have 50 per cent of the skills, whereas women feel that they need a 90 per cent skill match in order to apply.
By changing the language to make the job sound more accessible, more women are likely to apply, she said.
The European Commission published new figures at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, showing an increase in the number of women on boards to 15.8 per cent, up from 13.7 per cent in January 2012. The boost comes after the European Commission introduced a 40 per cent objective for women on boards based on merit in November.
“The proof is in the pudding: regulatory pressure works," said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's Justice Commissioner. “Companies are finally starting to understand that if they want to remain competitive in an ageing society they cannot afford to ignore female talent.”