Women make up just three percent of IT and computing engineers in the UK, the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) has found – a figure that has remained stagnant for five years. With the new government initiatives to get more women into the industry, ComputerworldUK asks three IT business leads about wage discrepancies, outsourcing IT off UK shores and simply, hiring more women.
“Get a proper job,” Elizabeth Gooch’s father told her before she founded her company ‘eg plc’ in a bedroom in the late eighties.
Without an IT background, or degree, Gooch has since turned her management consultancy business into a listed software company, oversaw a flotation with AIM, raised a daughter, accepted an MBE and is one of the few female CEOs of a listed software company.
Gooch, who is part of the CompTIA ‘advancing women in IT’ campaign, is a role model that young girls should be looking up to. But even she is adamant she would “rather than focus on woman, try to focus on young people. Do what you can to encourage girls but don’t single them out”.
Outsourcing overseas is affecting youth talent pool
The real problem, says Gooch, is the practice of outsourcing IT to foreign countries as they offer cheaper labour.
“Maybe a lot of the youngsters have watched their fathers made redundant by this outsourcing, and they are put-off going into IT,” she suggests.
Outsourcing is creating gaps across all ages of the workforce, she adds.
“IT skills are becoming polarised at senior level and the more junior roles are outsourced offshore,” she says.
Hollie Whittles, director of Purple Frog Systems Ltd, an IT consultancy company she runs with her husband, says corporations are to blame for much of the outsourcing.
“Corporates do a lot of offshoring and bringing in cheaper resource and that means there is less opportunity. That impacts the roles that are available,” she says.
‘Awareness is a big problem’
Although eg plc has a 30 percent female workforce, Gooch says that there are none in technical roles.
“No woman has ever applied,” she admits, but also says that she would not hire a woman just because of her gender.
When it comes to her own child, Gooch says she would actively encourage her daughter to enter the IT world, but only in a role that matched her outgoing personality, adding “she would go mad” in front of a screen all day.
“There are a range of different jobs that are available, technology is seen as nerdy. Perhaps sitting behind a computer screen or developing games doesn’t apply to girls who are more sociable creatures,” she says.
Getting girls in front of a tech-savvy role model may be crucial to balancing the divide. But there are hardly any women to be found in highly technical jobs. The majority of women in IT currently take the roles of go-betweens, as parodied by the IT Crowd’s ‘relationship manager’ character Jen Barber, whose job is to translate tech for end-users, or business leaders.
However, jobs are opening up for women in business across a range of IT roles, helped by initiatives like the CompTIA's ‘advancing women in IT’ campaign, which seeks to get women from all ages into IT.
But for it to be effective, schools need to focus on vocations rather than leading in the league tables, Gooch says.
“It’s not realistic unless there are changes to educating kids on what jobs are out there - and what attributes suit them - rather than ticking boxes for certificates,” she says.
“If people don’t know what the options are across the board, no sector has got a hope in hell. At the moment schools are just interested in getting people into university.”
Whittles became interested in IT while using her Amstrad with 64k RAM for gaming while at home. She is also part of CompTIA's Advancing Women in IT community, and hopes that young people’s interest in simple apps on smartphones will ignite a passion for what was once reserved for ‘nerds’.
She started out testing software and found she had a knack for translating for developers and end users.
Nevertheless, confidence seems to be an obstacle for women, she says: “When I managed teams, men were a lot more direct and a lot pushier. We had to run talent management programs to bring women out of themselves.”
‘Male colleagues were being paid more than me’
Victoria Bell, director & co-founder, Bell IT Solutions thinks a lack of confidence could affect pay packets. Lower pay amongst women in IT boils down to confidence and women are unaware of what they, or the market, is worth, she says.
“They [women] won’t walk away from a job and won’t ask for more. Employees want to pay you the minimum and perhaps women do not feel as confident to ask for more,” she says.
Similarly, Whittle says: “You are not really supposed to talk about salaries but of course people do, and in the past my observation was that my male colleagues were being paid more than me.”
Gooch and Whittles think the rise of the smartphone will see a rise in young girls’ interests in apps, and how to make their own.
With the new computing syllabus entering schools in September there is hope that more girls, and boys, will start to get excited about learning how to code. But teachers say they are ill-equipped to teach concepts they have hardly any concept of themselves as there is not enough funding to coincide with the ICT changes.
SMEs need to play their part
Last week, business leads were told by the IET’s chief executive that they needed to take “urgent steps to improve recruitment and retention of women”, after the organisation found that just three percent of IT and computing engineers were women.
The figures are unsurprising, but Gooch believes that they indicate a missed opportunity for SMEs.
“I think it’s the SMES really that need to do more - the big businesses have got the resources to do it but it’s the SMES are missing out. The graduates eg hired have brought new ideas and weren’t difficult to train, they are really bright kids,” Gooch says.
All the graduates Gooch’s business has hired have either been promoted or poached by companies like Accenture.
“SMEs are a good training ground and we can make a lot of difference because there are a lot more of us,” she says.
Do gender quotas work?
All three IT leads seem determined that we shouldn’t upset the system by placing girls in roles to simply fill a gender quota.
But if you consider that female representation amongst IT engineers has plateaued for the past five years despite ongoing awareness campaigns. Couple that with the high hopes for a 50:50 gender ratio in entry level roles from government backed ‘The Tech Partnership’ - are there many other options to explore?
Picture: IT Crowd Channel 4