What do a single mum, a textiles graduate and the founder of an internet startup have in common? Simple: they all love IT, and have rewarding jobs in the industry.
So what's shocking about that? We know that working in IT doesn't mean you have to spend your weekends perfecting your programming or building a network in the spare room. Unfortunately, we're in the minority.
There are thousands, probably millions, of people in the UK looking into the technical world, thinking: 'ugh, how dull'. IT has an image problem - especially with women and schoolchildren.
"Attitudes are formed very early. It is frightening," said Jo Strain, ebusiness commercial manager for IBM, who visits schools promoting IT as a career. "I work with girls aged 13 to 16, and they can come up with only two careers you can possibly do in IT. First is a programmer, which they think is boring, insular and hard. And second is a secretary."
"There is a real problem with their understanding of the perception of the range of roles and skills required. Thirteen-year-olds already have a negative image of IT," added Strain.
This issue of image was the main problem highlighted by delegates at Computing's Women in IT forum earlier this month. The forum was organised to find out why women are snubbing the industry. Between 1994 and 1999 the number of female IT professionals fell from 29 per cent to 24 per cent, a trend that looks likely to continue. So just how do we reverse the figures, and convince women that the IT industry is a great place to work?
Reversing the trend
"We need an anti-geek campaign," said Sophie Callies, vice president of forum sponsor iPlanet. "We need to do a lot of PR for the industry. IT is leading this new world."
Relying on the internet and dotcom euphoria to act as IT ambassadors is not enough to attract more women to the industry. Role models representing the diversity of IT are needed - not everyone has a job like Carly Fiorina or Martha Lane Fox.
"We need to focus on all the different areas of IT and not just on the technical side, which should get away from the idea that a woman in IT is simply the equal of a female anorak," said Glenda Stone, founder of busygirl.co.uk, a business technology portal for women.
"Successful role models will attract more women into the industry," agreed John Eary, head of the National Computing Centre's skills source consultancy. "We need to promote role models from all levels of the industry, so people can identify with going up that ladder."
It is up to us to make that happen. Women who work in project management, systems support, programming and ecommerce should look at how they can become ambassadors for the industry - or 'chip chicks', as suggested by Callies. "Women from companies should be going into schools to promote IT," she added.
Starting with school
The role of schools and education in promoting IT was another key area of debate, with the authorities and teachers being blamed for a lack of awareness.
"One of my friend's daughters had just done her GCSEs and was really excited about IT," said Sue Black, founder of the BCS's London Women's Group. "As part of the course she was asked to write a Microsoft Word user guide for 10-year-olds. She found the assignment boring and dropped the course after six months. Why didn't they create a web page? Now that is interesting."
"They definitely need to make IT trendy in schools. I think if it was perceived to be sexy and cool, more women would express an interest in it," Black added.
Jane McCauley is one of those teachers trying to make IT cool - especially for girls. "Teachers are not often interested in IT," admitted McCauley, who teaches IT at Sheffield College. "We need to change the way the IT is viewed in schools."
McCauley wanted to set up special courses to demonstrate the potential of technology to students, but hit a huge problem. "In schools we do not have the time any more to support the students or go out and do taster sessions to encourage girls into IT," she said. "This is a political issue, and I do think we need the government to do something about it."
There are also ways that the industry itself can help promote IT careers to new recruits from university and school.
The Information Technology National Training Organisation (ITNTO) runs university seminars to help students understand the opportunities available in IT and the skills needed. "We tell them that there are a number of different roles and responsibilities available," said Anne Russell, ITNTO chief executive. "We endeavour to make sure that the language used in all of our careers literature demonstrates that IT is available to all - especially women."
Why flexibility matters
Signing up legions of women to the industry is all very well, but we also need to look at how to keep them as their needs change during their career. The more choice, the better.
"If the IT profession becomes more flexible it should attract more mothers," said Pearson. "They will be able to work from home and there is no reason why the IT industry cannot introduce more flexi-time working hours to best suit your life."
Some companies are already offering staff more flexibility. "When I had my son, I wanted part-time work," said Dawn Branker, Unix system administrator for VirginNet. "I was given a computer, a pager and my phone bill was paid for. Sometimes I would get up and do my work at 3am. There were no problems."
Employers are not the only ones who can change working patterns. The government has an instrumental role to play in this area too, as Callies pointed out.
"We need to get help from the government to have a more flexible working situation," she said. "We need to focus on a flexible working population and job sharing. In the US this is starting to happen quite a lot."
What the state can do
So just how is the government addressing these issues? A spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) told Computing: "Minister for Learning and Technology Michael Wills is working closely with Tessa Jowell and Baroness Jay, who both represent women's issues in Parliament, to ensure that a gender-based 'digital divide' is not allowed to open up. They are determined that boys and girls should be equally supported and encouraged in their IT studies."
The government is investing £253m in learning centres, which it claims will bring technology training to people's doorsteps and offer women affordable and accessible training provision.
"We are working with the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that investment in new technologies and learning opens up opportunities for women." added the DfEE spokeswoman.
What is clear is that women in the industry have to lead from the front. We all have a role to play in the future of women in IT. As Black told delegates: "It is up to us to do something about it. People have been saying the same thing for 10 years and it is up to us now."
If you have something to say on women in IT, send an email to [email protected]Additional reporting by Maggie Holland
|Telling it like it is|
|"We must recognise that the industry is currently male dominated and therefore will have male values and agendas"|
John Eary, head of NCC skills source consultancy
|"I do not think that there is a strong, chauvinistic gene in IT men. Men in IT judge people on their performance not gender"|
Fiona Pearson, managing director of Marconi Software Solutions
|"If you ask for part-time work, you tend to get low-level tasks. We need to promote job sharing at all levels, then it would be more interesting for women to work in this industry"|
Sophie Callies, vice president of iPlanet
|"I asked a group of women from a large IT consultancy if they thought there was a glass ceiling in IT. One said: 'No, there isn't a glass ceiling, there's a concrete one"|
Sue Black, BCS London Women's Group
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