What women want

By Tracey Caldwell
30 May 2001

Women account for only 24 per cent of the IT workforce, and there is little sign of that figure rising. In fact, the proportion of women taking up degree courses in computer sciences is decreasing. At a time when the IT industry faces a severe skills shortage, women represent a massive untapped resource.

The National Training Organisation (NTO) for IT skills claims that one million more IT professionals will be needed in the next five years. The NTO has carried out research into how careers in IT are perceived. It found that only five per cent of young women consider entering the IT industry, and that it is one of the industries least likely to be considered by women seeking a career. The main reasons were: a lack of industry knowledge (40 per cent); lack of interest (25 per cent); and the perception that IT jobs are boring (25 per cent).

However, at the recent Women Unlimited conference in London, Baroness Jay, the Minister for Women, said: “Of the estimated two million jobs that will be created in Britain by 2010, many in new technologies, around 80 per cent will be filled by women.

“Better working environments for women should not be seen as a reduction in the competitive edge of business in Britain. Improved childcare, maternity conditions and flexible working are an investment in worker loyalty, retention and productivity rather than a cost.”

A number of the female IT professionals we spoke to felt there was significantly less discrimination against women now than there was a few years ago. However, many expressed concern over how a woman could successfully combine career and family.

Proving your worth at work

Claire Grove recently left the reseller she was working for to join a product manufacturer. At the reseller, she was subjected to jibes about her newly married status. She says: “I made a conscious effort to get into IT and have now been working in the industry for two-and-a-half years, predominantly in the network management and security arena.

“While I have been able to develop my role, it has not been without its frustrations. It was hard to prove myself, particularly at the beginning of my career. Whether this was due to my being a woman or because I was new to the industry, is debatable. But it seemed as though I had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to prove my worth and overcome the prevailing suspicion that my next step would be to have children, therefore making me unable to work as effectively as before.

“This sentiment has always been good-natured and jokey in its delivery, and the question is academic as I don’t have children, but the underlying message is a dangerous and inaccurate one to send out to women in the business.”

Women have traditionally been welcomed into certain sectors of the industry, namely marketing and PR. But some employers have set out to target women for more male-dominated areas, partly to increase the pool of talent available to them.

Electronics firm ARM Holdings, for example, believes women are key to resolving its skills shortage. It has released case studies of some of its women employees in an effort to attract more women applicants, while IBM has set up the Women in Technology Steering Committee.

Rebecca George, human resources (HR) partner for IBM Global Services, says: “We are beginning to see more examples of women working part-time, some only during term time, as well as job sharing.”

A positive approach to IT

Many women who have been attracted to the industry are enthusiastic about it. Caroline Styles, marketing director at distributor Equinox Solutions, says: “I can’t understand why women would not find this industry attractive; after all, it offers more opportunities than most other industries. IT offers tremendous scope for career development and growth, particularly with the influx of startups and US companies expanding into Europe.

“I also think the industry is more open to flexible working hours because home and remote working is more acceptable today, and it can often be attractive to working mothers.”

Sarah Whipp, director of global channel and EMEA retail marketing at Network Associates, where a number of women sit on the board, says: “This is very much a man’s industry. You often find women working in HR and marketing, but rarely in senior management.”

Balancing work and family

Whipp believes that although sexism used to be rife in the industry, it is no longer to blame for the lack of female talent. She is conscious that holding down a high-flying job involves a trade-off between work and family. She says that because of the long hours she is expected to work, she would find it difficult to do the job if she had a family.

“I am away three weeks at a time. This can put a strain on relationships, especially if you are with someone who does not work in the industry, and who may not understand that you have to spend time with clients,” she says.

She believes, however, that companies are becoming more sympathetic towards women employees having children. “When a woman is good at her job, I would want to be as flexible as I can. However, when a woman goes part-time, I lose headcount, so I can only be flexible within the financial constraints of the company,” she says.

“But IT has helped women by making it possible to work from home,” she continues. “Network Associates offers flexibility from the HR department and the IT equipment to support it.”

Meriel Winwood, chief executive of Enterprise Asset Management Solutions, says she has had problems when she has been promoted. “It worries men when they have to work for a woman,” she says.

Winwood feels women are put off working for IT employers because there is a mystery about the technology, whereas men are attracted to the sector because it pays well.

Ginny Lynch, commercial director at pan-European consultancy Synstar International, says: “I have never experienced discrimination. I feel that women with the right skills and experience can get on. It is down to a positive mental attitude.

“I take the view that I don’t have problems, I have opportunities. I have encountered sexual harassment but just worked it out my own way and manoeuvred around it.”

Focus on work following pregnancy

When discrimination does occur, it is often against pregnant women. Alison Goldie, manager at distributor and ASP Futurelink Europe, runs the company’s Scottish operation, which she set up in 1998. She is responsible for building and maintaining the authorised reseller channel and has recently returned to work after the birth of her first child. “I have had to be extraordinarily organised and focused on the job and I am enjoying work more because of that focus,” she says.

But she explains that colleagues had doubts when she went on maternity leave. “My job didn’t really get done while I was away. The company could have got upset about it because it went on hold.

“A lot of colleagues were going around saying I wouldn’t come back and it really got to me that people felt they had the right to comment,” remembers Goldie.

“I believe the main problem for women in the IT industry is that there are not enough female icons. If I have ever had any issues, it has been with women. I find that the biggest thing that lets women down is other women.”

Peering through the glass ceiling

Sue Strother, executive vice-president of Adaytum, believes there is a glass ceiling for women. She says: “I decided to co-found Adaytum with a fellow Kiwi, Guy Haddleton. Having spent a number of years working in corporate America, where I experienced first-hand the politics and frustrations of being a female executive in middle management, the idea of being my own boss was enormously appealing. I get to make my own rules and break them if I felt like it. I am frequently in boardrooms where I am the only female present. Is it a factor? It most definitely is. There have been times when I have been asked to get the coffee.”

Like Goldie, Strother has encountered discriminatory attitudes from other women. “It is difficult to balance a family life and career in any industry,” she says. “I have been lucky, with a very supportive and encouraging husband who has shared the responsibility of raising our son. Despite this, I have often been subjected to open criticism of my career, surprisingly by other women who disapprove of my lifestyle. It often involves travel and periods away from home. A man, however, would never be questioned about work-related travel. It would simply be accepted as part of his job.”

The fact there are so few women occupying top-level positions in IT tends to give these women high visibility, and they are often the targets of criticism. Some will protect their hard-won position by pulling up the ladder behind them so that other women can’t climb it.

Support groups and skills building

Groups have been set up to give women contacts with other women working in the IT industry. One of these, High Tech Women, was created a year ago to offer skills-building and mentoring in a comfortable atmosphere.

Its members include 200 female chief executives, 600 directors and 1400 others, including students. “It is very aspirational and there is a thirst for knowledge,” says Lucy Marcus, founder of the group.

She admits that when she had the idea for the group, she wasn’t sure whether women would consider a gender group relevant. But after she sent out an email to 100 women in the industry announcing the launch of the group’s website, the site received 1000 hits in three days.

Challenging male domination

In spite of the efforts of groups such as High Tech Women to help women make it in IT, until more women enter the industry, and the prevailing culture of masculine presenteeism is challenged, talented women will continue to be driven out of the industry, often at the height of their careers.

Kirsty Davies-Pryor held senior marketing positions with a major multinational software company in the UK, France and US for 20 years. She was profiled many years ago as one of the leading women in IT. But it hasn’t been easy.

“It put a great strain on my relationships and I was determined to take a lower profile position with less travel. Hence, I am happily ensconced at Multimedia PR in Chepstow,” she says.

“The push-back so often comes not from employers – although I’ve had some issues there – but from partners. I think women are attracted to the industry but many don’t have the balls, if you’ll forgive the expression, to get ahead, so they choose a softer option as a result. And no, it’s not about being aggressive; it’s about being better, quicker, smarter,” says Davies-Pryor.

The French connection

Cranfield School of Management’s Robina Chatham started out as a mechanical engineer, went into IT as a business analyst and then became a project leader. She spent 14 years in IT, ending up as European IT director for a large financial group. Now, however, she has decided to get out of the industry.

“I got fed up with organisational politics and metaphorically having to put on a suit of armour. As a woman, I had to be better than the guys because I was more visible,” she says.

As European director in France, she found sexism particularly harsh. “They definitely felt the position should be held by a man; they made it clear that they felt women should be secretaries,” she says.

At Cranfield, Chatham has carried out detailed research to discover whether the stereotype of the anorak-wearing, socially challenged geek is based on the truth. Her research found such perceptions to be largely based on reality, and uncovered some interesting observations about why men as well as women may find it hard to reach the board via a career in IT.

When she compared IT managers to a group of UK general managers, she found some striking differences. “IT managers tend to want to be told what to do. They feel more confident with guidelines; perhaps that is why they tend not to reach board level. This finding was consistent across all IT sectors and all sizes of company,” she says.

Melinda Horton, senior vice-president of engineering at Lazy Software, says she has noticed a marked reduction in applications from women for engineering jobs. “In the past two years, I’ve had only two CVs from women, one of which I hired,” she says.

She believes successful IT women must be more visible to young women. “I recently did a co-presentation to the IT students and staff at the Bucks Chilterns University College. I was surprised to have inspired two female students, who couldn’t believe that the title on the slide actually referred to me,” she says.

Equal opportunities at an early age

Mary Rauchenberger, business analyst at Midas IT Services, believes initiatives to encourage women to work in IT should start early. “At the primary school where I am a governor, we have explicitly stated in our curriculum policy that equal opportunities strategies must be enforced in IT, where boys have a tendency to take over. Continuing the emphasis into secondary school is also critical, because that’s where gender differences start being reinforced,” she says.

It is ironic that the percentage of women entering the industry appears to be in decline at a time when the number and variety of available careers in IT is greater than ever. The balance between work and personal life is increasingly on the political agenda, and valuable employees are likely to be looking to their employers to help them achieve a healthy balance between the two.


30 May 2001


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