Where have all the IT girls gone?

Only the most determined women thrive in the alien, male-dominated techie corner of the office. But the few who have would like to see more bright young women join them in this fast-moving and well-paid sector. Emma de Vita reports, with case studies by Miranda Kennett.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Anyone with a young daughter will know how difficult it is to prise them away from their Nintendo DS - didn't you know Nintendogs rules, okay? Yet that's where the fascination with computers appears to end for girls. Leave boys on their own with a games console, however, and not only will they play it obsessively, but they will, with the aid of a small screwdriver, start taking the thing apart. It's not uncommon to see a boy emerge from his bedroom with a dismantled gadget in hand. But have you ever seen a girl covered in debris from dismembering a computer?

Actually, Caroline Plumb, CEO of research and recruitment agency FreshMinds, used to do it all the time (along with videos, speakers and vacuum cleaners), and it was no surprise that she chose to study engineering at university. Says Plumb: 'My taking things apart finally ended up being useful, as I personally built the first two computers for FreshMinds from the motherboard up ... closet geek!' But she is in a female minority among the male geek majority. Science, engineering and technology remain male preserves in the UK - particularly computer science, where only 13% of all successful higher-education applicants in 2006 were female.

And then you have to consider that, of the 1.6 million people working in IT, only a sixth are women. According to high-tech trade association Intellect, just 20% of IT managers, 16% of software professionals and 12% of IT strategists are female. Apple has no women in senior management roles on its board, although HP, Cisco and eBay do.

Last year, Microsoft and networking group womenintechnology surveyed 1,300 IT women in the UK and found that only 16% had made it to senior manager level. What's more alarming is that their number is shrinking. The labour force survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics in 2005 showed that the female representation in the UK's IT workforce had declined by 3% over the previous four years.

But how much of a shock are these statistics? Technology has been a boys' club since Alan Turing and his contemporaries flicked the switches on the first electronic computers more than half a century ago. Governments have been concerned about the issue since the publication of the DTI's Butcher Report in 1985. What has happened since then? Nothing, despite government initiatives and a push by the private sector to lure more women. Business is baffled by the stagnation, and the problem seems intractable.

Are girls, and by extension women, simply just not interested in computers? We'll have to go back to school to answer this. The statistics paint a confused picture. A 2005 Toshiba study of 1,112 girls between the ages of 11 and 18 showed that 76% were very interested in and enjoyed working with computers, and 45% enjoyed learning about maths, the sciences and IT; but 77% said they didn't want to have or weren't sure about having a job in computers. For those who had decided not to pursue a career in IT, 57% said other careers appealed more, yet only 4% believed computers to be better suited to boys.

'There are differences between boys and girls,' says Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of public school Wellington College and father of two girls. 'Boys are more interested in computers than girls, and it often correlates with maths. It just so happens that girls are more interested in feelings and boys are more interested in things. Girls like computers mainly as a means of communication, as well as computer games that are constructive and creative, like The Sims. They also use computers for research on the internet.'

Seldon confirms the stereotype that more boys than girls are interested in the sciences. There might be a 50/50 split at Wellington for biology GCSE and A-level between girls and boys, but when it comes to physics it drops to 20/80.

Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, ascribes this difference only in part to gender. 'In early years, there's evidence that boys are somewhat more oriented toward physical objects, while girls are more oriented toward other persons and social interchange. But these are only averages, and the within-gender differences far outweigh the across-gender differences.'

Although on average, he believes, men are more skilled in spatial and logical thinking and women more skilled in language and social interaction, these norms have changed considerably in recent years and he expects them to change further. 'At any historical point, there will be differences between all sorts of groups (male vs female, old vs young, black vs white), but these can be fanned or evaporate quite quickly.'

He believes there are many prejudicial conditions that discourage women from being involved in science, IT and computers, and that, given support, these will quickly change.

Adds Seldon: 'The image of IT as a career is male-dominated and geeky - rather arid and unemotional - and computing is perceived as a solitary activity.'

Is the image of the sandal-wearing geek so off-putting that girls don't want to be associated with computers? 'Girls don't think IT is glamorous or exciting,' says Cary Marsh, engineering graduate and co-founder of video-sharing site Mydeo. 'It's just not cool. I meet schoolgirls because I want to give them a role model, to show them how exciting tech careers can be.'

Marsh's own inspiration was Martha Lane Fox - 'but there aren't many people like her around now'.

Microsoft, Cisco and many other tech firms run programmes that invite female employees to meet schoolgirls. 'They are just amazed,' says Nikki Walker, director of strategic planning at Cisco. 'They have no idea you could have such a number of careers.'

Web 2.0, with its focus on social networking, could yet give technology the female-friendly face it needs. 'It will change the landscape,' says Eileen Brown, who heads the IT pro evangelist team at Microsoft, where 29% of its overall workforce are women and 14% of these work in a technical function. 'Girls and women are using these tools more than men. With the interactivity of the web, kids are already using developer tools, and IT becomes part of the fabric of girls' daily lives. This is a cultural shift in the female perception of technology, and because it's much more cool now, girls will grow to accept it.'

What about the young women who do leave the beaten path and opt for computer science? Their reward, a top graduate job, should mark the start of an exciting, well-paid career, but for many, it's only the start of a battle with a culture that can leave them underpaid, sidelined and wanting to quit. Some stick it out (even flourish) but then leave to start up their own business, fed up of the work/life compromises they are forced to make.

'A lot of women go through the graduate programme feeling there is no difference between them and the men,' says Carrie Hartnell, Intellect's transformational business programme manager. 'When they come out, they suddenly realise that they are treated differently. Some feel like the culture of the organisation doesn't let them interact. It's a boys' club, going out drinking after work or playing golf. There is a divide between men and women and a feeling that they are not included.'

Microsoft's 2007 survey acknowledged overt sexism: 'Some men discriminate against female colleagues by assuming they have less facility for deeply technical matters, or that they'll need to be "carried" in some way when they eventually have children.'

A particular crunch-point for female techies is taking a career break, often to raise a family. Though not unique to the world of IT, the problem is exacerbated by the hectic pace of the industry. 'If you come back after six or nine months to your employer, then that works,' says Maggie Berry, who runs networking group womenintechnology. 'It's if you take two or three years out - the technology industry moves so quickly that your skills will very soon be out of date. Technical reskilling is very expensive.'

Yet firms desperately want more women and offer a combination of networking groups, specific training courses and flexible working arrangements to entice and retain them. Board-level diversity discussions are also a regular fixture because the issue has become an urgent, business-critical one for firms that want to be successful in the future. Says Cisco's Walker: 'The talent gap is growing fast, and if you park the fact that we should have more women because it's the right thing to do, from a business perspective it's an imperative. If we want to be able to grow in the way that we hope to, then we need to recruit a lot of women, because there won't be enough in our standard pool of white, 35- to 45-year-old men to hire.'

The pressure is on, and momentum is building as the business case for getting more women into the industry - and at senior levels - has been made repeatedly, most recently by McKinsey and Catalyst (see also book review, p27). 'Three or four years ago, we used to say it's a bit anecdotal,' adds Walker. 'But it has now been proved that diverse teams make better decisions, and that affects the bottom line.'

It now rests with tech companies to entice female Generation Y-ers to make up the shortfall. 'I think we are moving into a world where collaboration is going to be the way that everybody does things, and that's in many ways how women do things naturally,' concludes Walker. 'And it's what Generation Y is into: collaboration, communication and networking. Us oldies really need to catch up.'

SARAH SPEAKE, INDUSTRY LEADER FOR TECHNOLOGY, GOOGLE UK

'It's very satisfying working for a company that's genuinely changing the way people use technology,' enthuses Sarah Speake. Despite 14 years in technology roles, she is still excited by the pace of the business. 'I'm naturally curious, so it really suits me to be in an industry that changes on a weekly basis.' Certainly, the volume of innovation at Google can be dizzying.

Speake heads a team of 20 and believes that as a woman, she brings competencies to the job that are not always shared by her male counterparts. 'Different skills are required at management level. Women are somewhat more empathetic than men, and better at spotting problems.'

Headhunted by Google while on maternity leave, she negotiated flexible working hours so that she could be home in the evening for her baby's bedtime. She feels lucky to work for a company with an enlightened attitude to work/life balance. During her absence from work, she made sure she kept up to speed with developments so that post-maternity re-entry would not be an issue.

Aware that many IT roles involve upgrading systems in business downtime, which is by definition not family-friendly, she advises women entering the IT business as follows: 'Choose your organisation carefully, making sure it offers flexible working options and doesn't have a culture that expects you to work silly hours.'

EILEEN BROWN, MANAGER, I.T. PRO EVANGELIST TEAM, MICROSOFT UK

When you've been the first female navigation officer in the merchant navy, scaling the heights of the IT world doesn't present much of a problem. True, in the early days, Eileen Brown was sometimes mistaken for the PA rather than the technical expert, but that didn't deter her.

With no computing qualifications, she advanced rapidly from creating a spreadsheet for tracking shipping to a management job at Microsoft, where she has worked for the past six years. She now sorts out problems with customers' software and systems, and tells them about new products.

Brown feels women are a great asset to technology companies. 'They're natural problem-solvers and great communicators. If a woman has found a new product she finds really useful, she wants to tell the world about it.'

So far, she hasn't encountered a silicon ceiling, although she's aware that other women have problems, particularly if they leave to have children. 'It's striking how unanimous people were about the need to encourage women to return to the IT world - 88% agree more should be done.'

Brown deplores the small number of girls studying technology and worries about the lack of female role models to excite them to the possibilities. But she's positive about the future, believing that technology is becoming less geeky, more mainstream: 'Facebook, Wikipedia and blogging are all making the internet a more engaging place.'

JEANETTE FORBES, FOUNDER, PCL GROUP

'Tough' is how Jeanette Forbes describes her journey from oil baron's PA to boss of her own integrated IT company, serving the oil industry. Determined to be taken seriously by prospective clients, she put herself through college, taking an HND in computing, followed by a diploma in management. Even so, she met a lot of resistance in the early days. 'I'd walk into a room at some business function, and you could just see the men turn and stare, thinking: "What the hell's she doing here?"'

Forbes was undeterred. From an early age, when she helped her grandparents with their wholesale fish business, she wanted to run her own company. Being, by her own admission, a very determined character, she just kept going, making sure she completed projects to order and ahead of schedule, so that she began to develop a track record for delivering.

Being able to speak to engineers and solve technical problems has been a major factor in her success. But she also sees some feminine skills as giving a distinct advantage. 'I'm very good at juggling,' she says. 'I can have several projects on the go that all require co-ordination, as well as making sure that I maintain a balance between work and life.'

She clearly thrives on the furious pace, but recognises that working unsociable hours can be testing for relationships and is a major deterrent to mothers returning to employment.

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