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How can we raise the numbers of women working in IT?

For many years forward thinking companies across the UK have been attempting to raise the numbers of women working in the IT professions. They make slow progress, and some might even say 'no progress', since we know that around 20 per cent of the IT workforce was female at the turn of the century and the number now languishes at about 17 per cent. For those involved in the work to attract and retain women in the technical professions, the question arises: 'what would the number be if we weren’t already taking action?'

When you look at it, the amount of activity to support the attraction and retention of women to the professions is astounding. It follows the lifecycle of girls and women. Many big organisations offer summer camps for girls (e.g. Apple, IBM, the bigger banks) to show them how exciting the digital world can be. Thousands of people are engaged in programmes to talk to girls in schools about the technical professions as a career option.

Most companies work with colleges and universities to attract more women to their Computer Science courses, and in some cases (e.g. University of Bradford) the Higher Education Institutions have a stated aim to achieve 50:50 intake on their courses. BCSWomen, part of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, is a countrywide networking group encompassing 1500 IT professionals. The team leading BCSWomen works to encourage more women to join the IT profession and support those who are part of it, including its members.

Supporting women into the IT industry

BCSWomen runs face-to-face activities for its membership, conferences to encourage IT graduates and post-graduates to join the industry, mentoring and career support schemes for women in technology, and virtual activities using social media and discussion groups. The group also works to inform the UK Government and other professional bodies of the issues regarding the lack of diversity in IT.

BCS also runs the Lovelace Colloquium (approaching its tenth year) to tell undergraduate women about the amazing careers that they can embark on in the industry and technical professions, engaging all the best companies and the most impressive role models to ensure that young women see a future for themselves.

And yet we make no progress.

Unilever has long been an organisation who understand that women are a truly important part of the workforce, and have supported initiatives for women in STEM for many years. It is really significant that they have recently announced their research into advertising and their plans to change how women are represented in their adverts. Their statistics reveal that only '2 per cent of ads show intelligent women', only 3 per cent of adverts feature women in professional or manager roles, and women are 'disproportionately' shown in domestic roles.

Resisting stereotypes

This goes to the heart of the problems we have in helping girls and young women choose a career in IT, and ensuring that women are represented at all professional and management levels in the digital workforce. We all depend on stereotypes to help us make quick decisions about people. Life would be slow and ponderous if we had to re-analyse everyone before we dared to engage with them. We make decisions about people based on accent, on clothing, on colour, on the weight they carry, on their gender and many other things too

The stereotypes that we use to judge people come from our upbringing, from the TV, from comedians (who lampoon certain regional accents), from the newspapers, and from advertising on all types of media. The Unilever work is important to those working to raise awareness of the impact of unconscious bias on the people we select and prefer for senior roles, or those we recruit for roles. What it shows is that if the stereotypes we are presented with in much of our everyday life feature intelligent women just two per cent of the time, and managerial and professional women just thee per cent of the time, then we, unconsciously, will take that information on board. Then, then next time that we go to hire someone for the Software Engineer role or the CIO role, we will draw upon those stereotypes, very subtly, and without malice, and we will be much more drawn to select a man for the role, because somewhere, in the back of our minds, we have an image of a woman at a sink.

We need to ensure, as we have at BCS, that we are forward thinking about changing perceptions. Unconscious bias training for managers and leaders is not a panacea, but it is a good start, and will ensure that companies can access the benefits that diverse teams can bring to their IT departments.

Gillian Arnold, Director of Tectre and Chair of BCSWomen, part of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

Image source: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens