Economist and author Vicky Pryce is fighting the corner for women in industry, telling ComputerworldUK why gender quotas may be the only means to improve gender balance within IT, and the wider business world.
“I am a great supporter of Martha Lane-Fox’s wish to see more women in technology. Her refrain is that the dusty – and some would have it anachronistic – House of Lords where Fox now sits has a higher (22 percent) proportion of women than the gleaming new technology sector (14 percent).”
Pryce says that quotas for senior positions within larger organisations are necessary to change the culture, attract females into professions and retain them, as career progression becomes much more transparent.
“Otherwise, if current trends continue, the gender balance in IT could widen further.”
But quotas are a controversial topic.
“No one really likes externally imposed regulation if they can avoid it, as its carries costs – even though the benefits to their firm more widely outweigh those costs in this case. I also assume that women who are in senior enough positions find it hard to argue in public for quotas as they would be committing their firms to extra regulation, which wouldn’t go down well with their organisations.
“Women also argue that they want to be there on their own merit and not just because they satisfy some quota system. But this is a false argument. In order to be there, they would have had to have worked twice as hard as the men, which is not meritocracy at all.
“Then we have the politicians,” Pryce, who used to be married to former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne, adds.
“Most parties don’t want to be seen to be imposing extra regulation, particularly not before an election if they can avoid it.”
Some firms are proactively looking at their pipeline of executive directors, Pryce says. But in most cases, the near-25 percent voluntary female board participation target is “being achieved by appointing external part time women non-executive directors, which makes very little difference to anything at all.”
The IT gender figures
Only 7.7 percent of IT engineers are female, according to a survey by CEBR, where Pryce is chief economist.
“And yet firms are still struggling to recruit workers with the required technical IT qualifications. More women doing IT would certainly fill the gap,” she says.
“Only eight percent of computer science A-Level students were girls. As they move into higher education, female participation on IT apprenticeship programmes and Computer Science degrees was only 21 percent and 19 percent respectively.
“Clearly no one has advertised that the average annual salary for women in IT, though still some 21 percent less than that for men, was double the average woman’s salary in 2013.”
Pryce sits on the cross-party, cross Houses of Parliament Design Commission, which has worked to point out the importance of design and creativity in engineering – which may make it more appealing to girls and women.
But, as Lane-Fox also pointed out in her Dimbleby lecture recently, the seed must be planted very early on.
“No one can dispute the role that education – a level playing field – can play in addressing imbalances in all sorts of areas from inequality of opportunity, to a radical shift in traditional attitudes. It will take us more than a generation to harvest its results though,” Pryce says.
Although Pryce was brought up in Greece, she witnessed what impact poor career options for girls could have when her children went through the UK education system.
“I watched my daughters being given rather feeble career advice that would have affected their ambitions if they hadn’t been stronger minded. Career advisory services, which have had funding cuts as I am aware across the board, do not explain the range you can cover as an engineer.”
One firm where Pryce worked previously, BIS (Bank for International Settlements), has run campaigns to alter the image of manufacturing to prospective students. Pryce believes rebranding firms will go a long way to solve the gender problem.
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