Women in the workplace still encounter
plenty of glass ceilings, but it would be good to think that the go-ahead
world of technology is leading the way in diversity.
But rather than seeing a new breed of women making their mark
in the IT industry
, in fact the reverse is true. The proportion of female IT employees has been dropping for years. Today, according to a report by Intellect, a UK IT industry trade association, it stands at 16 per cent in the UK, down from 27 per cent in 1997. And that 16 per cent tends to be concentrated in the lower levels of the profession: about 61 per cent are in low-paid, low-skill jobs. The higher you go, the fewer there are: only 8 per cent of CIOs
are women, according to a recent survey
from recruitment firm Harvey Nash.
This is typical of western economies. In the US, the proportion of female IT professionals is falling and now stands at about 27 per cent, while in European countries such as Norway and Germany, the figure is below 20 per cent.
In emerging economies
, where a job in IT is seen as an opportunity
, it is a different picture: in Malaysia, for example, 50 per cent of computing students are female. And in India, an increasingly important player on the global stage with a thriving
IT sector, more than a third of computer programmers are women.
The problem the west faces is not just that women are not joining the industry, but that those who do join, do not stay.
"Women tend to leave the sector following the birth of children, but also later in their careers, typically between the ages of 40 and 50, when they are experienced, skilled members of staff - difficult and expensive to replace," said a 2005 report, Women in the IT Industry: Towards a business case for diversity, commissioned
by the UK Department of Trade and Industry.
numerous intiatives, the numbers continue to fall. With girls now frequently outperforming boys in school examinations around the world, young women are choosing professions such as law, medicine and accountancy. But they are staying away from IT.
Does it matter? If women want to become doctors or teachers and men want to work in IT, why not let them, instead of worrying about "diversity"?
Carrie Hartnell, programme manager at Intellect, says it matters a great deal: "This is no longer about a gender divide
, this is about how economies remain competitive," she says, pointing out that reducing the pool of talent available in one of the most important industries makes little economic sense.
So why do females in the west lose interest in IT and at what stages
in their lives?
The first, and perhaps most crucial
stage at which girls tend to drop out of IT is between the ages of 10 and 14. Before then, girls enjoy working with computers just as much as boys do. However, by the time they are 14, girls have been turned off technology by its " geeky
" image, according to research commissioned by e-skills UK, an employer-led body licensed by government improve IT skills. Anecdotal evidence suggests, too, that girls can be intimidated
by boys' tendency to hog
the equipment in IT lessons.
The problem is compounded
about what a career in IT might look like. Wendy Hall, head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton University, and a former president of the British Computer Society, says that research from BCS among 14-16-year-old girls about their attitude
to computing turned up
some surprising results.
She explained: "We expected them to say they didn't like it because it was geeky, but they actually said ‘I don't want a career in IT because it's just being a secretary'."
Schools must shoulder part of the blame
, says Prof Hall: IT lessons, she argues, have become about spreadsheets
and word processing
rather than about using computers creatively. Anne Cantelo, a project director at e-skills UK, agrees, and says that many teachers fail to make a clear distinction
between professional skills and user skills.
But even after school there are other factors that put young women off a career in IT. At a recent Women in IT roundtable organised by IT Week and recruitment body Computer People, many women spoke of the long hours
culture and lack of flexible working in IT.
Women often leave IT careers after having children - with those who return often finding it difficult to regain
their place on the ladder. There is a widespread - and possibly misplaced
- belief that IT moves so fast that women who take a year out cannot catch up again: "In talking to women anecdotally there's a view that at first they're too young and then suddenly they're too old," says Val Singh, reader in corporate diversity management at Cranfield University.
For those who stick it out, it can be tough: Trudy Norris-Grey, now managing director of Sun UK, reports that when her children were young, she would get into work at 6am so she could leave before 5pm and spend time with her children before their bedtime. At 8pm, she would start working again.
And then there is IT's own glass ceiling. Prof Hall first experienced discrimination in her 20s when she applied for a post teaching engineering students and was turned down by an all-male panel because they thought she would be unable to control classes of male students.
Some companies, however, are making a point of targeting graduates: Hewlett-Packard, for example, sponsors a computer science course at the University of Furtwangen in Germany aimed specifically at women.
At Accenture, recruiting graduates from a variety of backgrounds, not just technology, means that about a third of its graduate intake
is now female