It's time for IT to put gender on the agenda. It may sound trite but that's the message from industry bodies and human resources executives from some of the world's largest IT recruiters.
Speaking at the Computer Software and Services Association (CSSA) conference to tackle the women in IT issue, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt has called for greater collaboration between industry, government and education to tackle the issue head on.
"It is pathetic that fewer women are entering the IT industry than 20 years ago. The opportunities for industry and the economy in general are huge," she said.
Encouraging women to enter and stay in IT jobs is more than simply an altruistic ideal. It makes more business sense than ever, although getting that message through to the industry is proving a pretty hard nut to crack.
Ian Watmore, managing director of Accenture in the UK, said that equal representation and "equal perception" of his company by females was essential.
"It's not just a moral and ethical argument, it makes common sense," he explained. "By 2010 I will represent a minority - white, able bodied males. Eighty per cent of the growth market of the future will be women."
And although companies continue to complain about skills shortages in certain areas, the situation is compounded because they're recruiting from a pool that is half its potential size. Women represent over half of the potential workforce in this country, but only 22 per cent of the IT workforce.
The figure is more shocking as the number of IT jobs in the UK has grown by over 50 per cent in the last five years, with proportionally less women being recruited than before. As recently as 1994, women made up 29 per cent of IT employees, according to government figures.
"We need to do something at a grassroots level to change the image of the industry and share lessons about how some employers have succeeded in broadening their recruitment," said Anne Cantelo, project director at national training organisation e-skills NTO. The body has launched IT Compass, a website to attract individuals from non-IT backgrounds into the industry.
To date 50 companies, including IBM, Logica, Microsoft and SEEDA, have signed up to the Employer's Charter set up by e-skills NTO in March last year. The Charter commits employers to working with the e-skills NTO to address the skills issues facing the IT and telecoms industries.
In particular the focus is on addressing the poor image of IT; broadening recruitment into the industry to include groups such as women, career-changers and mature workers; and increasing the provision of work experience placements within organisations.
Lance Williams, human resources director at EDS, one of seven high-profile champions identified by the e-skills NTO, said that attracting and retaining female employees was fundamental to the company's future success.
"IT is a hugely competitive market and we need to work with other employers to reach that untapped skills base," he explained. "Talent is not being spotted. It's financially and commercially impacting companies in the UK. We'd be a much stronger company and workforce as a result."
CSSA director general John Higgins called for a government backed incentive scheme to encourage all employers to take the training issues seriously as a means to help women gain the skills needed for jobs in the industry.
"We need an incentive structure to encourage all employers to invest in training and level out the playing field," he said.
A Barriers to women returning to IT report will be published by the Department of Trade and Industry on 21 January.
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