Almost everyone in the IT industry would admit that there is a skills shortage, but would everyone be happy seeing this gap filled by women? Mark Ballard looks at the channel’s attitudes to women and what, if anything, is being done to change things.
Most men working in the IT industry will admit that there is a skills shortage and that we need all the help we can get, but does this including bringing women into the mix?
Clem Herman, co-author of an Open University (OU) report about female Microsoft engineers, said the subject is still an almost unstudied area: “I just want to tell women that there are opportunities for them should they want to take advantage of them.”
But the barriers have been stacked so high against women taking IT careers that from 1997 numbers have fallen proportionally by over a quarter (see graph, below right).
Almost 80 per cent of IT workers are men, according to the Office of National Statistics. And yet if more women can be persuaded to fill the widely publicised skills gap, future skills targets will be more easily met. This has become official policy of e-skills, the quango charged with improving IT employment, which fears fewer British people taking blue-collar IT jobs will lead to a shortage of tech-savvy managers in the future.
Yet for the women who do work in IT, most are at the lower end of the job scale. Almost 70 per cent of database clerks are women, whereas 80 per cent of technology managers are men (second graph, above right). Even those women who do choose IT careers are finding the glass ceiling has been erected low down. And it is difficult to shift that when those sitting above it make life difficult for the builders.
The OU report about female Microsoft engineers sought to discover if women-only training environments resulted in more women becoming accredited professionals. To draw its conclusion the analysis needed to consider how numbers of women engineers had increased over the 18 months in which the programme it studied had been running. But Microsoft was not able to give an accurate figure on how many women engineers it had certified.
Ram Dhaliwal, training and certification manager at Microsoft UK, admitted it could not share the data because it does not track the gender of its engineering trainees.
“We don’t reveal UK MCP numbers from a data privacy point of view. The answer is simply that we don’t keep the data,” he said.
Bronwyn Kunhardt, who five months ago took the newly created post as Microsoft UK’s head of corporate reputation and diversity, vowed to do something about it. She said: “I’m trying to get them to collect a whole host of diversity data. I’m trying to get it put through that we have to go back through all the MCS applications we have to collect the gender data.”
More importantly, researchers need detailed data to determine why women find it hard to progress in IT employment. How many women, for example, take Microsoft engineering courses but fail to take the exam? How many fail? How many achieve a low-grade Microsoft accreditation, but never make it any higher?
Doctor Debbie Ellen, OU research fellow and co-author of the Microsoft study, believed the indifference is widespread among private companies. She said: “There’s a requirement [to track gender] in public education, but not in private training – that’s something policy needs to address. We have no base line from which to move forward any research.”
Some private trainers appear to be willing to do their bit, but they believe there is little they can do. Trainers just provide the places for employers, who tend to send men on courses, said Nigel Pearson, director of Azlan Professional Services.
Pearson shared what data he could. Across all of Azlan’s training courses, just 11 per cent of attendees are women. Women fill 10 per cent of seats on Microsoft courses and in more arcane disciplines, such as Cisco networking, women take just 4.5 per cent of places.
But Pearson had no idea how many people, let alone of which gender, go on to take exams and whether they pass because neither Microsoft nor the companies that manage it – Prometric and Pearson Vue – share the stats.
According to the OU study, a survey conducted by Microsoft last November found that of 286 UK engineers just five per cent were women. But as there were 963,606 engineers at the time of the study and no further detail was given, the findings are of limited use. But additional evidence suggests that women fail to get on in IT careers because of patriarchy and sexism.
“Men on training courses tend to be too outspoken, too competitive, too know-it-all, they don’t really let you take part and they don’t share,” said one female trainee.
It is a complaint heard in studies of both public and private IT learning environments. When women get into the workplace they find little improvement. An American study, Networking and Career Advancement Strategies for Women: A Study of the Effects of Networking and Mentoring on ICT Careers for Women, published in June, found that 90 per cent of employers hire based on networking.
IT employers also stand accused of failing to adopt flexible working hours for mothers. Pearson suspects employers don’t send more women on training courses because they don’t want to waste their money on someone who may then leave to go on maternity.
The OU report quoted another study, The Digital Gender Divide: Implications of IT Skills Training for Social Inclusion, which found female Cisco engineers were not given time for their families. “If you can’t work 24/7 don’t waste my time, don’t waste your time, you aren’t going to be working in the networking industry,” one female was apparently told.
As if to add grist to the establishment’s view, the report was interrupted when the trainer went on maternity leave. However, the report still came out on time.
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