I have been very proud of the gender mix of our graduate intake over the past few years – and of repeatedly featuring in The Times top fifty ‘Where Women Want to Work’ list. However over the last 12-18 months I have noticed far fewer women coming forward and that set me on a quest to find out why. I soon discovered that a serious gender imbalance in IT is now nationwide and getting worse, not better.

The implications are alarming. Even though skills shortages are scarcely a top priority in today’s economy, the problem is certain to return. Clearly, therefore, the prospect of being denied 50 per cent of the graduate population amounts to a big handicap.

Let’s look at a few facts. Government licensed Sector Skills Council for IT and Telecoms organisation e-skills UK, says the UK needs 141,000 new IT professionals every year, yet currently only one in every five IT employees is female. Moreover, the pay gap between male and female IT staff is 20 per cent, says e-skills. A survey by Intellect, the IT trade association, shows that one third of women in the industry believe they have been overlooked for promotion purely because they are female.

And on present trends the imbalance looks set to get worse. Fewer people are taking IT degrees – 50 per cent fewer than five years ago – and the female contingent has now sunk to 15 per cent, the lowest ever. Serious enough when you realise that 55 per cent of graduates entering IT have studied computing at university. The problem gets worse further down the age-scale. The numbers taking A-level computing have decreased by 45 per cent over the last four years - and only 10 per cent of those students are female.

All of which adds up to a big – and worsening – problem for CIOs. Why? Well firstly, because a host of workplace studies have shown that the most creative and effective teams are those formed of both sexes. Indeed it is my own strongly held view – shared by both my male and female colleagues, that women bring their own distinctive set of skills and characteristics to the IT workplace. Skills such as empathy, communication, tact and multi-tasking can make a great contribution to an IT team, and while they are far from unknown in men, they are often more typically found in women.

Indeed Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, has called for an end to the “stupid” male geek culture that disregards the work of capable women, and puts others off entering the profession. “We have to change this at every level”, he said.

So what is to be done? And specifically, what should CIOs be doing?

Well first, some great initiatives are already underway. Computer Clubs for Girls (CC4G) was launched in England in 2005 by e-skills UK and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF); it now runs across the whole UK, aiming to teach 10-14 year-old girls professional IT skills. Take-up has been phenomenal, with 125,000 members in 3,600 schools in England alone. Higher up the age-scale, the British Computer Society has launched its Women’s Forum with the stated aim of ‘increasing the number and proportion of women in IT.’ Another key organisation, Women in Technology, also started in 2005 “with one goal in mind: to help women build successful and satisfying careers in the IT industry.”

But these initiatives can only really work if the industry does its bit – and above all CIOs. I’d like to suggest three ideas already in operation in my own company:

1. Be open-minded about those you recruit. Do all your people really need degrees in computing? Our own graduate recruitment programme is now open to those with a good degree in any subject, provided they have a passion for technology, business or consulting. And we are not alone – IBM for example is now following this same policy.
2. Get out more! The CC4G programme, for example, is crying out for employers to get actively involved by talking to its girl members about what it’s really like to work in IT. It is surely up to all of us to communicate far more. We need to tell the world just what great career opportunities there are in IT, and explain that by no means all of them are as remorselessly ‘techie’ as they might imagine.
3. Take a fresh look at your recruitment advertising with gender-sensitive eyes. You might spot many ways to make your organisation more attractive to female recruits. Our own recruitment website now features videos and first-person stories from some of our best and brightest young women recruits, and early signs show it is having considerable impact with the intended target audience.

Follow this prescription, and together we might turn IT into a profession that is 21st century not just in its technology but in its social mix too.