Diane O’Brien sold her house to fund a degree in computer science and begin a new life and glittering career in IT. That was the plan anyway. She’d read all the literature about chronic skills shortages and thought her degree from Kingston University and a nine year track record of working in the NHS would assure her a job. That was in 2003 and she’s still waiting for the break.
"My confidence is deteriorating and I’m losing faith. I still believe in my skills and ability but I’ve spent two years sending off applications and not getting anywhere. And at my age I can’t afford to hang around," says the fifty-something mother.
O’Brien did have a spell of employment immediately after graduating with a firm of consultants but contrary to the 'graduate trainee' job description, she was consigned to administration and chasing timesheets. Meantime her younger, male colleague, employed on the same contract at the same time, was given responsibility for maintaining the server.
O’Brien’s story is a depressing one that resonates with research published by the Training Camp last week. It found that 67% of women it surveyed felt it is more difficult getting into the industry than progressing up through the ranks. Despite employers bewailing the skills shortage in the ICT sector and the age discrimination laws introduced last autumn things don’t seem to have changed that much. It is still very hard to break into IT as an older person or to return to it as a woman after a career break.
According to the UK for Women in Science Engineering and Technology (SET) Resource, the proportion of women working in ICT has dropped four percentage points, down to 13% since 2001. Similarly, women working in IT service delivery although a higher proportion has also dropped from 29 to 26%.
However, according to Maggie Berry, communications director of womenintechnology.co.uk, "flexible working is coming”, even to the City, that most macho bastion of working environments. She is regularly approached by the big banks who all express an interest in broadening the employee base and deepening the recruitment pool. “They’re worried by the lack of returners," she says.
Martin Smith, managing director of GCS recruitment agency thinks the lack of investment in working mothers by corporations is perverse. "There’s built-in stability there with a working mother, whereas the twenty something guy is more likely to take the training and leave after 18 months to make his way up the career ladder," he reasons.
However he also thinks that every group trying – and failing - to re-enter the IT department should take a long, hard look at their skill sets. His colleague Lisa Cadogan, London manager at GCS, confirms: “Most returning women do make efforts to keep their skills up-to-date while out of the market. It’s common sense”
Networking is often recommended as a crucial tool for mature workers who can mine their contacts gained throughout their working life to secure the next move. Berry says the same is true for women returning to work. “Direct applications to employers and networking are the best bet," she says.
While recruitment consultants offer a "very useful and free service for brokering jobs", Berry points out that consultants are ultimately sales people and will always pursue the best candidates. And the flexible requirements of returning women makes them less likely to be the preferred group, particularly in the City where the culture is to work every available hour.
One woman who has worked in the financial square mile and is contemplating a return there after a year away has sussed out that software skills are eminently more transferable. Despite her degree in computer science specialising in artificial intelligence, she has opted to work in quality assurance and project management.
“In finance in particular, business is more interested in how technology is applied. And it is very hard to keep hard technical skills up-to-date if you’re not continuously in the workplace.” Her next job, she has decided, will be in the IT audit, a field for which she has spotted a healthy future.
Her thinking is shared by Samantha Wallace, an IT professional who started out in software development and worked her way into project management via system design. After a five year career break, her strategy is to return to project management. There was help to ease her way back in: Wallace took advantage of a free self-study Prince 2 course offered by examination board agency, Equalitec.
For women with less focussed objectives, there’s no shortage of events that can advise on how to burnish their CVs and work the recruitment agencies to their advantage. The womenintechnology.co.uk information portal for women IT workers set up by recruitment consultants McGregor Boyle in 2005 regularly hosts events on networking and many of the big names are keen to ally their names with these exercises.
"They are not recruitment events but they are good opportunities to get to know, employers directly and find out how they work," says Berry. “Women often stumble because they don’t understand the processes involved between employer and recruitment consultant. Every bank works slightly differently. At one, the recruiting agency ‘owns’ the candidate for the tenure of their contract and it would be hard to move within the bank," she points out.
Berry also urges women to be realistic. It’s easier to go back to a firm where you have worked and have a track record. Likewise, one of the lure’s of the City is the big pay packet but you need to think why that is: banks expect their employees to work very long hours and overtime is a given.