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Building the Foundations for Change

Maggie Berry, Director of womenintechnology.co.uk, questions whether the infrastructure is in place to support women seeking a career within the IT industry.

Let’s start with a few facts and figures. Currently, just 19% of the IT and Telecoms workforce is female, a figure which has fallen by 4% since 2005. Just 20% of graduates in computer science and IT are female. And despite outperforming their male counterparts, girls account for only 9% of those taking A level Computing, and 38% of those taking A level ICT. There are obviously issues that need addressing in order to boost the number of women in the technical workforce – is the infrastructure in place, both within education and in the workplace, to support women in IT careers?

womenintechnology.co.uk and the BCS recently held a careers event for women called W-Tech, which focused on some of the issues facing female technologists in the workplace. During a panel discussion at the event, some of the panel members – successful females in technology – as well as some audience members had some interesting thoughts on the subject of women in IT careers. Naturally, education was one topic that was touched upon, and more specifically the provision of adequate teachers.

Rebecca George, current chair of the BCS Women’s Forum, relayed an anecdote of an IT professional she knew who was training to be an IT teacher, but was the only one out of 30 trainees with a degree in computer science rather than business studies. She explained, “she is teaching IT in an environment where her colleagues are teaching how to use the internet using PowerPoint slides – and this is common throughout our school system. We really do have a huge requirement to get properly qualified IT teachers teaching our kids the stuff that they really want to learn.” Although this does seem to be a problem, the issue may be deeper than this and lie with the schools themselves, or even the education authorities and government, when it comes to the curriculum and what is taught.

“Schools teach IT, not computing” said one audience member. She described how teaching spreadsheets is the most boring part of technology and does not allow any room for creativity like computer science does. Someone else added “GSCE IT is almost secretarial skills!” Panel member Dr Nicola Hodson from Microsoft UK Ltd agreed: “I personally think there is more we should be doing at school age, ICT as a subject is pretty boring in school…they learn some pretty dry stuff. I think if we get the teachers excited, make the courses more aligned to some of the technology that kids are familiar with, then we can probably keep a little bit more excitement around the STEM subjects and IT itself at a very young age.” As a perfect example she added that for this reason, IT was the first subject her son dropped, despite being a big user of technology at home.

Linking closely to the idea that IT in schools just teaches ‘secretarial skills’, there was also the suggestion from a member of the audience that schools are not doing enough to encourage their students to choose IT as an option. She explained, “I think there’s still a bit of educational apartheid now for IT – it seems to me schools have done a great job at promoting pure science but ICT is still seen as a bit of an easy GCSE...and I think that there’s still an association early on with children that it’s not a proper science.” These problems at school level obviously have a knock on effect and are contributing to the falling number of women taking IT related courses at University, highlighting the need for an improved infrastructure at school level – not only to get more people, and more girls especially, to take IT but also to make them aware of the opportunities within IT and encourage them to use these skills in a professional capacity. When it comes to further education, audience member Sarah Blow, founder of Girl Geek Dinners, mentioned that a lot of people are unable to do IT degrees without an A level in maths. The system therefore needs to adapt here too; perhaps to make this criteria more flexible but at least to make sure that this information is available so students have all the facts before it’s too late. Chair of the discussion, BBC journalist Kate Russell, summed it up by saying, “To me it seems crazy because education has been made more interesting by technology, yet education about technology seems to have missed the boat.”

But when it comes to helping female technologists in their careers, what obstacles are in place and what could be improved? The UK currently has the most unequal parental leave arrangements in the whole of Europe. The government recently revealed its plans to extend paternity leave, allowing men to take up to six months rather than the two weeks they’re currently entitled to, which is a great step forward, but is it enough? Many think not and that a lot of men will not take the leave as it’s not compulsory. At W-Tech someone gave her thoughts: “I’ve been living in Sweden since 2003 – how much time do guys here get for paternity leave? Is it two weeks or something? In Sweden a guy can take up to one and a half years – there’s no discussion about who’s at home with the kids, you both are.”

Once maternity leave is out of the way, women still face issues around childcare, with many sacrificing their careers because of childcare responsibilities. The general view at W-Tech was “why do women at the top tend not to have kids when all the men do?” Many of those that do return to work find it difficult, with a career break meaning skills are not up-to-date and confidence is often lost. There are some schemes and support groups to help women back into work, but not nearly enough. Many women also find it a challenge to secure flexible working. Although there are many policies in place, these are often down to manager’s discretion, and many women may feel uncomfortable in approaching the subject. “When you are starting at a new job or go back to work after children, I would not have discussions with my manager during interview about how to manage childcare issues” added Nicola Hodson. “Things that look daunting at first glance – like how you manage overseas trips and childhood illnesses – are actually quite manageable in practice, and much more straightforward once you are back at work and handling single issues as they arise.”

The gender pay gap is something we hear about in the press but that’s unfortunately because it’s alive and well. Salaries for women working in IT are above the general national average at £500 a week, compared with the average salary equating to £420 a week. However, on average, a male IT and Telecoms professional earns around £720. In the same way, many women comment on the difficulty in being given the same respect as their male colleagues; “you have to be better to be equal” is a view echoed by many women in IT. It’s more difficult to say what infrastructure dictates this – what is creating this barrier? I think the press release that I saw the other day demonstrates this perfectly: its title was “women ‘clueless’ about technology”. This attitude is something that we’re working hard to change. It’s also partly due to the lack of women in the industry, and especially women in senior positions, as more diversity would encourage equality. Yes, there is a narrow pipeline of female talent, but that aside, there are still women who could pursue technical roles but choose not to. As panelist Deanna Kosaraju, from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in California put it, “women gravitate to where the role models are, and where they see a career path for themselves – and that isn’t the top.”

So, is the infrastructure in place to help women in IT? The foundations certainly are – with the Equality Bill and the new paternity measures coming in soon there are improvements on the horizon, but we have a lot of work to do yet. If we can educate young people about what they can achieve through technology and educate the rest of the workforce about the valuable contribution women can make, that will be half the battle, but it’s one we’re still fighting.

The author

Maggie Berry is Director of womenintechnology.co.uk, the career portal and networking site for women in IT

(ITadviser, Issue 60, Winter 2009)

 

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