Reading a recent blog by one of Informed Solutions’ talented new graduate recruits, Helen Thomas, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of sadness and déjà vu – yet another generation of talented, capable young women are finding the industry that I so love an unattractive and discouraging career choice. How could the stereotypical image of geeky young men, building games in grungeons still be so prevalent and off-putting to the current generation of smart, young women?
Why is the industry still failing to raise its professional status and attract young female talent? Why are so few senior ICT posts occupied by women? True, there are high-profile examples of successful and inspirational women in IT but, given the dwindling number of gifted and talented young females entering the industry, where are future generations of female digital leaders going to come from?
The World Economic Forum reported on the current gender gap and suggests that at the current pace, it would take 80 years for women to achieve parity in the workplace. Yet I believe that if the skills that women can bring to the world of IT are harnessed and encouraged, as all good talent should be, we will bring parity to our sector in a much shorter timescale.
My own journey started when, as a young IT professional, I found myself completely out of my comfort zone in a male-dominated workplace with a laddish culture, complete with inappropriate girly photos on the wall in the lunch rooms.
There was no anti discrimination legislation in those days, and I quickly realised that if I wanted to remain in IT, I had to ‘man-up’. Actually, there wasn’t that much overt discrimination – it was more casual and institutionalised; the unwitting type that excludes those that are ‘not like us’ and centres around laid-back male camaraderie and corporate complacency. It was pervasive. It builds the concrete walls that oppress, constrain ambition and sap a woman of the energy to succeed.
Faced with this stark fight-it-or-leave-it situation, it galvanised me to look for ways to make a breakthrough in direct but non-confrontational ways. I learned to focus on being well prepared, offer fresh ideas, and to stand by my ethics whilst being politically attuned. This approach allowed me to navigate through the discriminatory minefields that years of social conditioning had laid across the industry.
By the age of 28, I had worked very hard and became a technical director of a large national firm – the future should have looked bright. However, it was made absolutely clear to me that aspiring to the all-male main board was never going to be an option. Having been put very firmly back in my box, I realised that the only way I would ever break through this glass ceiling, to a position where I could truly influence the strategic direction of a company, was to start my own.
The motivation for sharing this background is not self indulgent or driven by ego. I believe that it is important to step up and speak up when something needs to change for the better. Our industry needs to better understand that the challenges faced by women in IT today are not new. The same misguided assumptions that exist today about women’s abilities and potential have changed little in the past three decades.
However, what I passionately believe, as this article hopefully illustrates, is that such challenges and obstacles can be overcome. Old-school prejudices are being respectfully challenged and eroded every day and there has probably never been a better time for women to select ICT as their career of first choice.
Our collective challenge is to open up and demystify the IT industry. We need to provide girls and young women with far better information and a greater understanding of the breadth of career options and opportunities in IT. Furthermore, this needs to happen at a much earlier stage of their academic and social development.
For example, it isn’t necessary to have a degree in computer science to pursue a career in IT. UK digital champion and iconic founder of Lastminute.com, Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, read history. Similarly, a number of Informed’s female graduates have degrees in humanities or business. It’s not all about coding.
What these women have in common is that they are methodical, structured and analytical. However, there is space for all their other skills too, including the more creative facets. What is actually needed are simply keen people with an open mind, good team working, the ability to ask the right questions and learn from the answers, and the willingness to focus on solving a tough problem.
Successful teams are multi-dimensional with members that have complementary skills; they supportively bounce good ideas off each other to help make them great ideas. There is a clear outcome in sight and they prepare a structured but adaptable plan to get there, which is perversely a lot like most team sports.
To ensure these message reach girls before they make their study and career choices, they need to be engaged and inspired at a much earlier age. Students whose parents are not themselves engaged are less likely to sustain any early interest. Therefore, awareness programmes need to be directed at parents, as well as students, to fully open up the world of career opportunities in ICT and better support those who want to pursue them.
It is estimated that we will need 750,000 more digitally skilled workers in our economy by 2017 to monetise an estimated £12 billion of opportunity. Some 200,000 of those vacancies are suited to younger people. Girls can play a major role in developing the digital skills we need and so can help fulfil that economic potential.
At the coal face, there needs to be much closer alignment and collaboration between schools, colleges and universities with the IT Industry so that we can jointly and progressively build up the skills needed to take the industry forward. We need more internships and apprenticeships that offer exposure to broader experiences and different aspects of IT, which are more likely to appeal to women. We need more industry talks at schools, colleagues and universities to help dispel the myths around gender and IT career stereotyping and encourage more women into the industry. We need to surface more inspirational leadership and informed advocacy, preferably from women who have achieved success in the ICT sector and can guide or mentor others on their journey. We also need to celebrate success with an open and generous spirit at events like the UK’s Women in IT Awards.
From a woman’s perspective, why challenge prejudice and social conditioning when there are so many other traditional career options? What benefits does a career in IT offer that outweighs this effort? I have found it to be hugely satisfying and stimulating; it has given me a sense of real achievement. I’ve been presented fresh challenges and new opportunities whenever I’ve sought them out because the industry is so dynamic and is growing.
My greatest pleasure has been surrounding myself with talented people who share the same strong, positive values of wanting to make a difference in their professional lives, and who want to do that in innovative ways. A career in IT allows you to build things that are creative, concrete and enduring; things that can tangibly engage with, give a voice to, improve or protect the lives of others on a large and even global scale.
On a practical level, it pays well and is arguably one of the most adaptable and resilient careers for both men and women, including those with childcare needs, as many roles can offer tailored hours and home-working options.
So my advice to women is you must first set aside your own preconceptions about the IT industry – get out there and ask smart questions, constructively, and politely challenge prejudice. Be open-minded and have a spirit of adventure about your career.
Take the plunge. Yes, you may well still find residual examples of the type of workplace and gender stereotyping that I encountered 25 years ago. However, you are far more likely to change things from the inside, than as an arm’s length critic from the outside.
Bring your ambitions, fresh ideas, energy, enthusiasm and intellect with you. Help transform the IT industry’s dynamics and help us remove the glass ceilings and concrete walls once and for all.