Increasing the number of women working in UK IT could generate an extra £2.6 billion a year for the economy, according to a report from UK domain name organisation Nominet.
The report, released to mark "International Girls in ICT Day", found that if the gender gap reduced and women filled the skills shortage in IT, the net benefit for the UK economy is estimated to be £2.6 billion each year.
The report says women currently make up less than a fifth of the IT workforce. Based on current trends, the IT gender gap is set to widen slightly over the coming years.
The report drew on research commissioned among IT decision makers in UK businesses, and found that 76% believe they lack suitably skilled staff in IT. Of these, 58% say this negatively affects productivity levels, estimating on average that productivity levels are 33% lower as a result.
In addition, 59% agreed that their IT team would benefit from having a more gender-balanced workforce, while only 7% disagreed. Improved communication skills (52%), improved staff morale (48%), and bringing new ideas to the organisation (46%) were the most frequently-cited benefits.
The report found that low female participation in IT education is a key factor in the workforce gender gap. Only a third of ICT A-level students and less than a 10th of Computer Studies A-Level students are female.
The imbalance remains at university, with women accounting for only 19% of students taking computer science degrees. At present, only 9% of female students taking IT degrees go on to an IT career, compared with 26% of men.
Even "relatively small gains" in education could have a positive effect, said Nominet. If the same number of women studied computer science degrees as men, and the same proportion of these women as men went on to work in the IT industry, the overall net benefit for the UK economy would be £103 million per year, Nominet said.
The research also found that 53% of respondents agreed that women find working in technology jobs less attractive than men do. Of these, 60% believe that the IT profession is still perceived to be male-dominated, and 33% think IT is not promoted enough as a viable career option for females in school or college.
But there are signs that the IT industry is recognising the importance of attracting more women. Almost a quarter of those surveyed said their company is promoting IT roles expressly to women, and a fifth are visiting schools and universities specifically to speak with girls and young women.
Nominet director of HR Gill Crowther said: "The digital economy is driving economic growth in the UK. Given the extent of the IT skills shortage, we can't afford to only recruit from half the talent pool. It's alarming to think that, if current trends continue, the IT gender gap will get bigger rather than smaller."
The report was produced by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (Cebr), and drew on a survey of 527 business decision makers in IT teams and at IT companies.
Top image is Little Miss Geek, a campaign that aims to inspire young women to consider a career in the technology industry.