Unfortunately, the image of the nerdy IT geek still prevails. As with most stereotypes there is a grain of truth here, but real life examples of the socially inept computer nut are far and few between. However, whilst this image persists, it will always be difficult to attract a high calibre female workforce. Frankly, the IT industry needs some really good PR.
So what can we do to address this problem? The first place to tackle the issue is at school. It’s well known that girls favour languages and humanities at school, while the Office for National Statistics reports that men are more likely to study for vocational qualifications in construction, planning, engineering and manufacturing technologies (accounting for 89%) whilst women are drawn to health, public services and care related vocational qualifications (accounting for 86%).
If this situation is to change, girls need to be positively encouraged to consider more ‘male’ subjects like IT, the sciences, design and electronics. Initiatives such as the Computer Club for Girls (CC4G), set up to encourage girls to develop their ICT skills, go some way to redressing the balance, but ultimately, the industry must do more to change its image.
Companies have to become more involved in schools, offering practical careers advice and providing strong female role models. This can be done through talks, mentoring or visits to the workplace itself. By encouraging girls to consider work experience in a technology orientated environment (unlikely to be their natural first choice) they can gain experience of the industry first hand. By shadowing women in IT, they can see for themselves how to have a successful and rewarding career within the industry.
But the IT industry doesn’t just need to change its image – it also needs to look at its practices. Many working women are mothers, and working parents of either gender benefit from flexibility in the workplace. As a traditionally male dominated industry, it’s fair to assume that the IT sector has been slower than some to adapt to the needs of working mothers who are likely to be attracted by adaptable working patterns such as job shares, working from home and flexible working hours. But these systems don’t just benefit women; they can help to create a happier, more well motivated and productive staff, irrespective of age, situation and gender.
Women returning to work after a career break are a valuable resource, but often lack confidence. Given the speed of technological change, returning to a position in IT is particularly daunting. Offering induction programmes, mentoring or specialised retraining can all help to encourage skilled women back into the IT workplace. Organisations such as The UK Resource Centre, which offers an online course aimed at women returners with a SET (Science, Engineering or Technology) background and the website, women-returners.co.uk can offer much needed advice and support for women returning to work.
I must admit that as a woman working in IT I have occasionally come across the IT stereotype in the flesh. But I have also met many interesting, welcoming and inspiring professionals who value the contribution that I make to the industry. So my advice would be to look beyond the image, and see the opportunities that await women in IT.
Rebecca Holbrough is a director of IT solutions provider the Symitry North Group