Walk into many IT departments and the levels of testosterone will be stifling, unbridled to grow in an environment where there are unlikely to be many women, if any. According to recruitment consultant Vanessa Coleman of Executive Recruitment Services, the gender imbalance in IT is astounding, with men outnumbering women seven to three across a broad spectrum of industry sectors. Nevertheless, in Coleman's experience, the number of women increases in the places where you would least expect them to. "I deal with a big cross section of the banks and where you would expect them to be the old traditional fuddy-duddies it's not the case," she says. "I know more senior women in IT in banks and fund managers than I would in the software houses and consultancies in that market." Coleman adds that things are slowly starting to level themselves out. She says that she knows more women in senior IT positions today then she did five years ago. However, things still have to go a long way before the gender balance is equal in the IT world. Fathoming out the cause of the problem is difficult. Many would argue that sexism is the cause, but the general consensus is that this is no longer the case, although it might have been a few years ago. Mary Cockroft, managing director of IT management consultancy Pagoda, rose to her present position through a mix of management consultancy and business analysis jobs in the IT field. "When I first started in the 70s it was much harder than it was now. Sexism was acceptable then," she says, recalling one encounter with an IT professional then who is a well-known figure in IT today. "He patted me on the bottom and said 'OK girlie, your views are very interesting but go and get us some tea'. That would be unacceptable now but everyone just laughed at the time," she remembers. Dominique Vaughan Williams is European marketing manager at IT research company Datapro. She agrees with Cockroft that things are better. "Sexism is pretty invisible these days. There has been a bit of nerdiness but the women just rise above it," she contends, adding that any sexism these days rears its head in the form of adolescent humour as opposed to active discrimination. A much larger problem for women in IT is the lack of encouragement at the education level, according to Vaughan Williams. "There is a lack of training at the more advanced level," she says. "It will be interesting to see what happens with the 10 year olds now but when the slightly older kids - who might be in their 20s now - were educated, it was still a very strong trend that boys went into the science subjects. It is still somehow the boys' domain." In spite of the lack of encouragement within the education system, many women involved in IT take the view that women bring skills to IT that men do not. Although it is a generalisation, many believe that women are better at communicating than many men, and are therefore better at finding out what users want and presenting the options available to business managers in plain English. "I would suspect that the reason some women get on well is that there are very creative positions within IT now," says Coleman. "Also, many women have soft skills such as relating to users. When it comes to business roles you see senior women in strong business analysis or business consultancy positions." One woman who rose to a high position in IT through a business analysis position is Diane Billingham, who is now divisional director of technology consulting at big six consultancy, Cap Gemini. From working in accountancy company Touche Ross, she moved into the National Computing Centre where she specialised in IT auditing before moving into the consultancy field. She became involved in networking and security in the late 80s and then went to Cap Gemini (called Hoskyns at the time) in 1989 to set up the company's IT security and auditing business. She grew that to a sizeable business and then set up the company's technology consulting group, which she grew to a #15 million consultancy business with a team of 100 people. Both Billingham and Cockroft agree that life can be harder for younger women in the IT industry. Billingham says that in general, women should have a lot more belief in themselves. Although most women work extremely hard, they can be modest about their capabilities and competency. "You have to have that self belief, commitment and drive," she says, adding that often women have to work hard to be considered equal in a male-dominated environment such as computing. "You must think about your career carefully, planning it and moving into roles in the company that might give you the appropriate visibility." Billingham advocates a mentoring system for younger women in IT who may feel that they have no point of reference on which to measure their performance, and who may want some advice and support from other women in the IT sector at various stages throughout their careers. The support group Women Mean Business operates a scheme along these lines, but it is not IT specific. Not all women rise to a position of power in IT via a non-technical route. Dr Kay Hammer, co-founder and president of Evolutionary Technologies International, invented the ETI*EXTRACT data integration tool suite herself. After earning her PhD in Linguistics from the University of Iowa in 1973, Hammer taught at college level for six years. In 1980, she received a tenure from Washington State University and made a transition to software, spending a year studying parsing theory as a visiting scholar at the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Texas at Austin. She then joined Texas Instruments as a systems programmer for the Digital Systems Group. After a series of promotions, in 1984 she moved to the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC), where she led the team that designed the user interface subsystem for an interactive CAD system. In 1988 she got the funding to develop ETI*EXTRACT, and in 1990 she spun off her own company with a colleague. Hammer is well aware of the problems facing many women in the IT sector, and has particular comments to make concerning pregnancy. In many industries, taking time off to have children before returning to a full or part-time position is relatively easy to do, but IT is a very fast moving industry. The danger is that women who take maternity leave for extended periods may return to work feeling disenfranchised and out of touch. She says that the ideal goal is for companies to be flexible, giving their women employees a chance to take maternity leave if they need to. "One of the things that helps maternity leave in the technical ranks is that because there is an increasing shortage of technical talent, employers are more willing to be flexible," she advises, adding that smaller companies are also more adaptable in many cases, and therefore able to offer alternative working patterns. Not all women want children, of course, and some choose to further their careers without any interruptions instead. Jennifer Allerton, director of information management at $4 billion industrial giant BOC, says that she could never have risen to her present position with a family. "If you do have a career break then it is difficult to get back into it. I don't have a family and have been able to concentrate on my career," she says. "I could never have done than with a husband and children in tow. I wouldn't have been able to take the opportunities available." Nevertheless, it is important for both women and men to have a choice. A healthy approach would be for men to take paternity leave too, and possibly for partners to share this approach. IT consultancy FI Group is a liberal company, with an even distribution of men and women. Rosie Simons, communications manager for the company, explains that the company uses IT to help its employees work using patterns to suit their needs. "We have a workforce that is split between those who are salaried, those who are freelance and for people with different needs, so that we can give them more flexibility in their work patterns," she says. "We have a number of different flexible approaches so that you can work part-time or full-time. We also have something that we call a flexible employment contract which gives a guaranteed number of hours on a salary basis." As attitudes change in the rest of society the IT industry is bound to follow, and the current skills shortage is bound to accelerate that trend. The main problem for women in IT is not gender discrimination in the workplace - rather, it is a lack of encouragement in the classroom and the lecture hall. These things will hopefully change but it will take a few years for such changes to filter through to the commercial environment. In the meantime, companies should do their best to implement flexible working practises to give both men and women the opportunity to structure their working lives around the need to look after children. Companies' most valuable assets are their people, and so a little flexibility in this area will reap commercial rewards in the long run. The lack of women in the industry has prompted one company to help launch a campaign to help redress the balance. IT recruitment consultancy DP Connect, in conjunction with our sister magazine Computing, ran a survey to assess the position of women in IT and found a dearth of them in the computing field. The company has now launched the Women in IT campaign, sponsored by Computing. Jan Stevens, manager of the campaign, has found that only 5% of IT professionals are women, and over half of those professionals received little or no encouragement to enter the IT field before they were 21. She says that 56% of men wanted more women in the IT field as they thought it would alleviate the current skills crisis. "The more senior you get in IT the fewer women there are. We are trying to introduce role models and create videos that we can send around to women to encourage them," says Stevens, who adds that although the IT field is male dominated, sexism is at a minimum. "When we spoke at a career seminar there was only one woman that wanted to leave her job because of sexism. Our clients were saying 'please introduce more women', because it's nice to go into an environment when it's a better balanced workforce." Stevens calls for more encouragement in further and higher education. "I think that the only reason for women's lack of interest is that they aren't being told at an early enough age what the opportunities are," she says. "They are not actively being encouraged to have careers in new technology. They should be told about how it is the UK's fastest growing industry, about how salaries are competitive and about how there are more roles in IT than simply unscrewing PCs." Although she admits that it is a generalisation, Stevens believes that many women can bring softer skills to the IT industry. As the need for better communications between business end users and the IT department increases, she says that women can often be better listeners, enabling them to find out what end users are really looking for in a system. Nevertheless, she emphasises that not all women need fit into this category. She identifies many women who have risen to senior positions in IT via a highly technical career path.
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