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Women Take The IT Industry By Storm

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When something goes wrong with your computer at work, just how often is the “IT guy” who comes to fix the problem actually a woman? We speak to women who have taken the IT industry by storm and why the sector needs more females - as research emerges that fewer and fewer girls are studying the subject at GCSE level.

Margaret Manning was born a geek. If she wasn’t completing a crossword puzzle, she could be found locked in her room writing code. At school, she rivalled the boys in maths and science, called computers “sexy”, and chose to study Information Technology (IT) at university.

But everywhere she turned Manning (now CEO of one of today’s most successful digital companies) says she was discouraged from entering the profession, being told it just “wasn’t for girls”. That was 30 years ago.

Unfortunately, according to research, the perception of women in IT has changed very little. While the number of girls studying information and communication technology (ICT) has never been high, the figure is now on the decline.

Statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that the number of girls studying IT at A-level fell for the fifth consecutive year in 2009, with nearly 4,000 boys taking the exam compared to just 300 girls.
And very few of those girls, say experts in the field, are likely to go on to a career in IT, as women comprise just 14.4% of the workforce.

Lack of education in schools, overt and inferred sexism in the workplace, and a general discouragement of all things “techie” are often cited as reasons why more women don’t pursue a career in an industry set to grow at four times the rate of other professions, according to the BCS, the chartered institute for IT.

This lack of potential candidates is already having a profound effect on the economy, the BCS warns, with many of available IT jobs being outsourced to India and other countries.

The hard sell
From Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and reportedly the first female computer programmer, and Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, to Eileen Gittins, creator of Blurb, an online self-publishing software, women have always been at the heart of IT. But there is still a long way to go in changing public perceptions about the field.

“My experiences with IT have been very different to the standard perception,” says Michelle McKenna of Sage, a business software company.

“Because I’m in product management, I have to work both technically and commercially, communicating the science of our product to our clients. “That means that my team - which is five women and two men - has to be dynamic, agile and informed, because the technology changes every day.”

Sue Black of the women’s networking group BCS Women says that McKenna is lucky to have a large number of women on her team. Adding that it’s not unusual to be outnumbered 18:1 in some of the more technical jobs.

But while being a lone star in a male-dominated industry can have its drawbacks (“I’m often asked if I’m the tea lady when I come down to fix a computer,” opined one tech consultant), it also has its benefits, says BSkyB project manager Charlie Forster.

“I prefer the way men work. You can have a stand-up fight with them in the morning and be in the pub with the same person in the afternoon, laughing about it. With women that’s not so easy.”

IT’s long and irregular working hours are also regularly cited as a problem for women struggling to juggle domestic and professional responsibilities.

“A year in the IT industry is an extremely long time,” admits software engineering consultant Jane Lewis, who took a year off to care for each of her two children. “I felt I had to work extra hard when I came back to prove that I was still a full member of the team, with my focus on the job.”

Yet technology changes so quickly, says Eileen Gittins, CEO of Blurb, that it doesn’t matter if it’s a year-long maternity leave or a three-week holiday: “You have to commit to staying current no matter what.”

Ironically, says Gittins, the fast-changing nature of technology is, quite possibly, the one thing that might help women remain in the industry. “So much of IT is online-based that you don’t have to be in the office to do your job, which means that it’s actually a profession conducive to women looking to start a family.”

A foot in the door
Of the 14.4% of women in IT, most tend to be in the more people-orientated jobs like training, teaching, customer relations or product management. Very few are in the more technical jobs like coding or hardware development, posing a problem for recruiters looking to increase their male-female ratio.

“It’s still a boy’s world,” sighs Manning, whose company Reading Room employs 200 people in both the UK and Australia, of which 64% of the senior posts are filled by women.

Research by the BCS has found that women are the main consumers of IT. Although, paradoxically, they are far less well represented in its production. More women in the business could produce more commercial success stories and better products for consumers, says Eileen Gittins, who created Blurb. She explains that her software idea came from feeling frustrated by the web and publishing world.

As technology becomes more user-friendly, says Gittins, like the iPad or Blurb or Twitter, more women will be more inclined to help create and develop it. “Women might have historically been encouraged into art or literature, but girls today are growing up with Facebook, Bebo, MySpace and Google.

“They’re video gamers who expect to post their pictures on Flickr and make books on Blurb. They see the Internet and IT as a way to create and participate - it’s not a technical profession for them, it just what they do.” She says that networking groups specific to women in the field, like the BCS women’s group (www.bcs.org/bcswomen), or Women in Technology (www.womenintechnology.co.uk), can help inform and support women.

But recruitment experts point out that there are other reasons why companies should look to recruit more women. Research has found that diversity in the workplace both increases profit margins, and develops internal resource.

Dominic Graham of recruitment agency Kelly Services says: “Having more women in IT will introduce new and different skill sets to organisations, which can only add value to them and be a win-win for everyone involved.”