DTI drive for women to help male-dominated IT

The government has announced a package of measures aimed at
giving the IT industry a makeover to try and attract more women into the sector
and tackle skills shortages. Quentin Reade reports

A raft of measures aimed at attracting more women into IT to overcome skills
shortages in the sector have been announced by the Government.

The initiative was launched by Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt
earlier this month to try and make the sector more appealing to school-age
girls and retain working mothers currently in the field.

According to the National Computing Centre, the number of women in IT has
fallen over the last eight years. In 1994 women made up 29 per cent of the IT
workforce – compared to just 18 per cent today.

One of the key proposals is the formation of the Champions Group, to be made
up of seven senior HR professionals who will advise the government at a
strategic level on what can done to address the problem.

Rebecca George, director of UK Government Business at IBM and head of the
Champions Group, believes a major obstacle to increasing the number of female
IT staff is its poor image.

She thinks women are turned off by the sector because they believe the
industry is filled with nerdy boys hunched over computers. "We want to
show them that people involved in IT are ordinary," she said.

George said having an industry-based group is important because it will be
"business people who make the decisions".

Anne Cantelo, project director at e-skills National Training Organisation,
which is supporting the DTI plans, said the idea behind the Champions Group is
to form a panel that can "move and shake and get things done".

Cantelo believes women need more work-experience at IT companies and should
be offered more information about career options in the sector.

"This is an economic issue. We will need skilled people for when the
economy starts booming again," she said.

Efforts to overcome the IT sector’s poor image among women will begin at
school.

US company Macromedia is to supply free software to schools which run
computer clubs for girls. The clubs, to be piloted in the South East, will
focus on appealing to girls aged between 11 and 13 and offer activities such as
designing magazine covers.

The programme will also see science and engineering ambassadors go into
classrooms to promote the IT sector – specifically targeting girls – and to
change perceptions of the industry.

Hewitt hopes the new initiative will show school girls it can provide them
with a well-paid, exciting career.

She finds it frustrating that only 24 per cent of computer graduates are
women, when girls do better than boys at computer studies in school.

"The current situation is bad for women. It means they are missing out
on opportunities to earn the higher wages that are available in the IT sector.
It’s also bad for business and the economy," she said.

"An IT industry dominated by men is only using half the available
talent and creativity. That is a particular cause for concern in an industry
that, despite current economic conditions, has a growing demand for skilled
labour.

"We all know girls are turned off by IT as a career option because it
is not something they connect with. Technology appears to be marketed by men,
for men," Hewitt added.

The e-skills NTO is to meet with the makers of popular TV dramas, including
The Bill and EastEnders, to ask them to create ‘normal’ IT workers in the shows
to boost the industry’s profile.

The NTO has also launched a new website called IT Compass, designed to give
advice to people wanting to work in IT. The site is divided into three areas;
women in IT, work experience and IT for non-IT graduates.

Gillian Crowther, HR manager at Microsoft, welcomed the new holistic
approach to tackling the shortage of women in IT and said creating a more
positive image for the industry is needed.

She said Microsoft has its own programmes to promote the industry and
company to schools and graduates.

Under the new programme, the DTI will supply up to £1m from the Work Life
Balance Challenge Fund for consultants to help IT companies develop employment
practices friendly to working parents.

This was welcomed by Diana Worman, adviser at the CIPD, who stressed the
work culture within some IT companies also needs to be looked at.

She warned that if women are attracted to the sector and employed by a firm
that does not treat them well, they will not stay.

The programme’s launch comes as the first systematic review and analysis of
women in IT, electronics and communication, undertaken at the University of
Sussex, is released by the DTI, Department for Education and Skills and the
Women’s Unit in the Cabinet Office.

The project compares six countries: the UK, the US, Canada, Ireland, Taiwan
and Spain.

The report finds that there is a worldwide gender gap in the sector and the
UK has the lowest proportion of female graduates in IT, electronics and
communication.

Figures show that worldwide, the number of women graduating in computing is
falling, those in the sector are being paid less and there are fewer in the
higher graded, more professional jobs.

www.e-skillsnto.org.uk/itcompass

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