'Where have all the women gone?' was the headline of the very first piece in this monthly series, published in CIO UK in December 2008, so it’s timely to ask what has happened over the last four years and to see whether things are improving.
Sadly all the evidence points to regress rather than progress. In my own company, our IT apprenticeship schemes are expanding rapidly but, despite our best efforts, the proportion of female applicants falls short of the 50 per cent that we see in our consulting practice. And from all the evidence I have seen, and conversations I have had, other big recruiters of IT talent see the same imbalance from apprenticeship to senior levels.
So why worry about it? Does it matter?
Surely the prime cause for concern is the reappearance of skills shortages in the IT jobs market, something that generates controversy but which most people now agree is reality not myth. Back in April, global recruitment agency Hays warned that the UK could be sleepwalking into an IT skills shortage as ever fewer young people choose computing-related subjects at school and university. In September, CIO UK reported that four in five CIOs find it a challenge to recruit skilled IT professionals. And in November the FT reported a McKinsey study predicting that high-tech companies face a global shortfall of 40 million skilled workers by 2020.
Under these circumstances it is obvious that limiting ourselves to just half of the population makes no sense at all. It is a point amplified by Helen Wells, Director of Opportunity Now at Business in the Community (BiTC):
“The ICT industry is missing out on crucial female talent in two significant ways. Firstly through the number of women who are qualified but who choose to work in a different sector. Secondly by young women opting out of studying related subjects in schools and universities due to not understanding the breadth of the industry. Leading employers are reaching out to young women and starting to win them over at an early age through a pipeline of activities spanning mentoring, work experience and scholarships to study IT. In parallel, a thorough assessment of recruitment and promotion processes is paramount to ensure that employers do not miss out on qualified and capable women.”
Despite girls now outperforming boys in IT- related subjects at 16+ (ICT, maths, physics), there is then an alarming dropout rate at A-level and university stages, evidently caused by the perception of IT as unfeminine and 'for geeks only.'
A Guardian article in October included some choice quotes on this problem, including the daunting but not totally unrepresentative: "I'd rather be a dustman than work in IT."
The problem starts young, and the industry has to start with the young in addressing it. That's why item one heads my five-point suggested plan for better gender balance in IT:
1. Get actively involved in promoting IT careers to schoolgirls. Invite female students into your office for a day and show them why it’s an absorbing career, one that connects with every part of your business. An easy way to start is to link up with the existing Girls in IT campaign from e-skills UK:
2. Review your employment practices for gender fairness against the benchmarks published by BiTC's Opportunity Now campaign: http://www.bitcdiversity.org.uk/ The website shows you the many dimensions of flexible working that can be make-or-break in terms of attractiveness to women employees.
3. Take a fresh look at your recruitment and promotion policies with gender-sensitive eyes. You might spot many ways to make your organisation more attractive for female recruitment and retention, for example by involving some of your senior female IT people in the recruitment process as role models.
4. Set some ambitious but achievable targets for diversity. Forget about quotas, which lead to resentment and promoting the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
5. Ensure that allowance is made, where appropriate, for the less assertive style of many women, and don't mistake lack of self promotion for lack of talent.
The UK IT industry is long overdue for a much healthier gender balance. Hopefully this five point plan will help to attract and retain a valuable pool of talent and in so doing address some of the skills shortage.