Women need to be determined and not wait for culture change in an industry that still has a glass ceiling, believes Rachel Burnett, herself a shining example of reaching the top. Helen Wilcox talks to the BCS immediate past President and IT solicitor about her experiences and views.

Has being a woman shaped your career?
Yes, because in the early days it was more difficult for women to get into certain careers. IT was an exception. Women with the right aptitude and skills were welcomed into IT whereas it was more difficult to get into traditional professions such as law or accountancy. At that time the Sex Discrimination Act had not yet been passed, which has since made a huge difference to opportunities and advancement for women. For instance, over 50 per cent of those going into the legal profession now are female. But the proportion of women in IT has fallen over the years.

Why do you think the proportion of women in IT has declined?
In the past, only certain professions were readily accessible for women - such as teaching or healthcare. There's a raft of reasons why girls don't choose IT now - including the profession’s poor image, lack of role models, lack of positive portrayal in the media, and the school ICT curriculum putting them off. People have a clear, even if not necessarily accurate, image of what a solicitor or accountant does. Being an IT professional is more amorphous.

Do we need more women in IT?
Yes, because of the skills shortages in the profession. And it can be a very worthwhile, interesting and rewarding career. We need more women coming into the profession at the start of their careers but also later on - returning after a career break, or changing careers. For example, it can be useful to combine other professional experiences with IT, such as IT law, now a recognised specialist area, or health informatics.

What would you say to someone considering IT as a career?
Go for it! IT is a career where you have plenty of different kinds of work opportunities, depending on what you are good at and what you enjoy, and the way you prefer to work. There are jobs for those with people-facing and communication skills. And other jobs where you can beaver away on your own. Or work in a team. You can work in so many different industry sectors, and in large or small companies. And you can be self-employed.

Like you are. What does your job entail?
I run my own law practice, specialising in IT commercial law, compliance and IP. Before that I was a partner in City firms, and before practising as a solicitor, I worked in the IT profession for several years. I now work on business transactions for commercial organisations - suppliers and their customers - drafting, reviewing and negotiating contracts and providing legal business advice. I am not a litigation solicitor and don't go to court. My work is computer-based much of the time. Some of my clients are companies abroad that need English legal advice for their business activities. I’m an associate lecturer in law for the Open University. I also give seminars and run workshops for lawyers and non-lawyers, and I write books and articles for magazines and journals.

Why did you move into IT law?
I had a good career in IT, as a systems analyst and project manager, but law was always something I had in mind. When I found out that I could do the training by distance learning, I did that while still keeping the day job.

With a non-law degree, I could do the theoretical professional training part-time in about two years, but I then had to take a further two years out from IT for articles - what is now called being a trainee solicitor, the full-time practical training in a solicitor's office. After that I returned to IT for several years. There was no IT law profession then for me to be able to combine my experience. A few years later IT law was just emerging and I joined one of the first IT law practices with a solicitor who, like me, had started off in the IT profession before qualifying as a lawyer.

Going back into IT after articles was like having had a career break, so I can appreciate the issues women face there. Although it was a long time ago, the principles are still valid - the need to keep up with technology changes, retain skills, keep confident, and so on.

Having said that, with IT, two years out is not in fact that long a time. It is the equivalent of having worked on one specialist job in IT for two years and then moving to a different project. That happens a lot in IT anyway. Plus, technology moves on for everyone in the industry, so anyone's skills can become obsolete if they don't keep learning and progressing to new areas.

Do see you see any differences in how women fare in the IT and the legal professions?
It's hard to generalise. Each has different ways of working depending on where you are - private or public sector, self employed or employed, small business or large organisation.

Women in IT or in law face the same basic career challenges as professional women in every sector. I think it's true that women in any field have to work harder for the same recognition. Recent evidence shows in both IT and law that many women are still paid less than men for the same work. There is also some evidence about differences in approaches to career progression between women and men.

Women often assume that if they are good at what they do, then it will be noticed and promotion will automatically follow. Not necessarily so. It is important for them to make it clear that they are good at their work and would like to be promoted, otherwise they may be disregarded.

Equally with recruitment, there is some evidence that women think they have to meet all the criteria of an advertised job perfectly before applying, whereas men realise that meeting most of them can be fine.

Is the situation changing?
The glass ceiling has not been broken, but we are more aware of it now, and therefore we know that we can do more about it. Nowadays gender bias is much more indirect than it used to be, often by individuals, and less part of an inbuilt culture. It is frequently not deliberate or malicious, but simply something that has not been thought about. Yet there is still a lot of emphasis on women's family responsibilities, a 'biology is destiny' approach, which affects some women's careers.

Meanwhile, what is your advice to ambitious women in the IT profession?
For anyone, you spend so much time at work that it is important, if you are fortunate enough to be in a position to do so, to have both a job and a working environment which you enjoy. Remember that everyone, including highly successful people, suffers setbacks from time to time, so don't let them get you down. You have to stay positive, and believe in yourself. If there is no one else to help, you must encourage yourself. Listen to advice from other people, and evaluate it. But take responsibility for yourself and make your own decisions. If they turn out to be wrong, think again, and move on.

Sometimes you have to choose to accept something for the time being that is not ideal, but at least do so having weighed up the alternatives, and appreciating that it is a temporary working solution. Work to change the culture, but it won't happen soon. So meanwhile, individually, women have to help themselves. For example, think about joining BCSWomen. This is a wonderfully useful mutual support and social network for women in IT.

How long do you think it will take for the glass ceiling to be broken?
Our ways of working are changing as technology is evolving, so it's difficult to make any predictions. I am not very optimistic.

What's next for you?
I'm intending to spend more time developing my legal practice, writing more, and maybe looking at some academic options. Women often assume that if they are good at what they do it will be noticed and promotion will automatically follow. The glass ceiling has not been broken, but we are more aware of it now... therefore we can do more about it.