VSJ – June 2008 – Work in Progress

Maggie Berry runs womenintechnology.co.uk, an on-line job board and networking forum for women working in the technology profession in the UK. The network has over 3,000 members and the job board is helping a wide range of investment banks and technology firms to recruit more women into their IT divisions. Here, she talks about her work.

As IT departments compete for scarce skills, a vast section of the workforce still remains untapped. It may be twenty years since the phrase ‘the glass ceiling’ was coined but today women still represent a massively under-utilised source of talent. There is no doubt that many organisations do hire a large number of women – the issue is making sure that their skills and capabilities are fully harnessed and retained.

womenintechnology.co.uk provides a networking forum for women in the IT sector and I have to say that the events that we run are like a breath of fresh air for women. We run formal, conference type events aimed at giving women something to actually walk away with; a new skill perhaps, improved confidence or increased knowledge of a new business area. While our events are planned with women in mind, it would be great if more men came along so that they could increase their awareness of some of the issues that their female colleagues are experiencing!

Recent events have included “Political Savvy for Women in IT”. Our sign up questionnaire showed that 77% of women working in IT did not feel that they had sufficient skills to manage in a political context within the workplace. The research also highlighted how office politics had affected many women in their jobs. 53% of attendees said that they had been victims of labeling, stereotyping or sabotage at work. The event was a great success and provided many women with practical tips for dealing with office politics and answered many of their questions.

We’ve also organised training courses to help women with networking and leadership skills as well as free themed networking sessions. One of the most recent was “Working Smarter, Not Harder” which was attended by over 200 women. The event addressed what makes successful people work smarter and not harder in order to achieve a work life balance that is unique and completely right for them. I think everyone was able to take away action points from our keynote speaker’s top three recommendations.

But it’s not just about networking and training. We also help organisations to recruit and retain more women into their IT divisions and have a job-board with a wide range of IT vacancies with employers such as Microsoft, UBS, Accenture and Cisco to name just a few. Retention is key, as recent research has shown that many women do not return to their jobs after having children, feeling that they miss out on new developments, networking opportunities and training. This has the knock-on effect of reducing their confidence in their ability to go back to work. In fact, according to a 2005 report from Cambridge University almost 50,000 women dropped out of IT between 1999 and 2003.

Although HR departments have been instrumental in devising and implementing quality retention initiatives, according to a study we undertook in conjunction with Microsoft, it seems that resources have not always been spread equally. One of the women who took part in the study said, “A lot of effort goes into training graduates, none into refreshing women returners’ skills”, while another commented, “Although my company supplied a basketball court, they didn’t supply a crèche. When the issue was raised at a company meeting, it was not well received.”

While childcare is obviously an issue, the responses showed no significant deviation attributable to caring responsibilities. It’s all very well for HR departments to have diversity policies in place but this has to be more than just ticking boxes. Almost two thirds of respondents to our survey claimed that the content of a prospective employer’s diversity policy would be an ‘important factor’ in their decision whether to join.

Women don’t want special treatment – far from it. Obviously all parents should have access to flexible working and other benefits, but what came out of some of the comments in our study was that there is a perception that women who take advantage of these policies or benefits would be seen as ‘weak’. Consequently HR departments need to adopt a universal approach and encourage more male uptake which would avoid damaging women’s’ ‘brand’ within an organisation.

There is also a distinct lack of female graduates opting for technology-based careers. This is due to a variety of reasons , not least its image as an ‘uncool’ or ‘geeky’ profession – a situation not really helped by media stereotyping. Our study with Microsoft showed that around half the women working in the technology industry believe that other women see them as ‘geeky’ because of their occupation. But roles such as business analysis and project management are anything but ‘uncool’ and brains do not have a gender. Careers in technology span a huge range of possible options and organisations need to be making sure that role models are as well informed as possible about the opportunities available.

The assumption that “Technology is a man’s world” needs to be challenged as it can deter many women from the sector. According to a report from Cranfield University, male attitudes still tend to rule the technology sector and science, engineering and technology companies are still less likely to have women in their boardrooms or in senior management positions. This may be because those types of organisations are seen as more traditionally ‘male’. But surely it’s time to get rid of the gender stereotyping such as: “We have a problem with the computers – lets call in the IT guys?” In our study with Microsoft, there was some evidence of men assuming that women have less facility for deeply technical matters but as one woman put it at one of our networking evenings: “Learn that male programmers may feel threatened by a woman as smart as them at first but will quickly see you as ‘one of the boys’ if you’re competent.”

You can contact Maggie at mberry@womenin.co.uk.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

Comments are closed.