IT has always been widely perceived as a male-dominated industry - when there's a problem you 'call the IT guys', not the IT girls. Despite women comprising around half of the UK's labour pool, a mere 20 per cent of Britain's technical workforce is female.

Fewer women choosing technology as a career path and more women leaving the profession have combined to create a distinct lack of female IT professionals. Maggie Berry discusses the importance of women to the IT sector and what can be done to attract and retain this valuable pool of talent.

So we know that technology is seen to be a male-dominated environment but it also seems that many women avoid the sector because of its perceived image as boring or geeky. CRAC, the career development organisation, found in its 2008 study of almost 2,000 undergraduates that over 60 per cent of non-computing students cited boring work as the main reason they would not join the sector. Similarly, research by womenintechnology.co.uk and Microsoft found that over half of respondents felt the 'nerdy' image of technology puts girls off pursuing careers in the sector.

One female technologist said, 'I was always seen as geeky by any non-technical females and was often treated as an outcast because of the department I worked in', while another commented, 'I don't tell my non-work friends what I do. That's usually enough to put them off.' This is also a reason why many young girls avoid taking scientific subjects at school, which results in fewer females taking technological routes at university and beyond. And of those who do pursue these academic routes, many do not move into technical roles and opt for positions in areas such as marketing instead.

Although some women do choose to work within IT and achieve great success there, many then leave the sector, largely due to the pressure of family commitments - around 50,000 women did so between 1999-2003, according to a report by the University of Cambridge in 2005. With the fast-moving pace of technology and the long hours often involved, many women lose their confidence to return and decide to move into other sectors offering a more attractive work  /life balance.

Others find themselves hit by the 'motherhood penalty', stripped of opportunities because of pregnancy or childcare responsibilities, as one participant in our research with Microsoft explains: 'I am really frustrated with the IT industry at present. I have been trying to look for a part-time contract or one that will allow me to work from home two days a week for six months now, but sadly clients are not interested. I have over 10 years' Oracle experience, which will now go to waste, as I am about to leave the IT profession for good and train as an IT teacher. It is really sad because I really enjoyed my work and working within a technical environment.'

This is all very well, but many may question why this matters. Why is it so important to have more women working in technology? There has been research to suggest that promoting women into top roles not only benefits the organisation in terms of diversity, but it also has financial advantages. US research has showed that Fortune 500 companies with the highest proportion of female directors are more profitable and efficient than those with the lowest. And, according to research by McKinsey, the strategy consultancy, European organisations with the highest proportion of women, in influential leadership roles, showed better than average financial performance.

For technology specifically, the white male baby boom generation professionals are beginning to retire and this, combined with the decline in new blood entering the sector, is creating a real fear that by 2010 IT will be experiencing a substantial lack of talent. Put simply, women represent a large and often untapped talent pool - a pool that the technology sector should be looking to recruit from if it is to remain competitive. The Prime Minister himself said that it's a crucial industry to the British economy - but it won't remain so without a strong workforce.

More generally women add to the team dynamic - a diverse team can bring differing perspectives and more ideas to drive towards success. Furthermore women are influential consumers in today's economy and so it is vital to have their input to reflect the needs and views of what is a hugely powerful group.

Many organisations throughout the UK are beginning to realise that it's in their best interests to step up efforts to both attract and retain female technologists. IT consultancy ThoughtWorks, for example, has a programme in place to help women returners. This free training aims to ease them back into the industry and even offers some participants jobs with the consultancy at the end of the programme.

They say, 'We don't want to accept that there are not enough women in IT. We want to do something about it. We also recognise that women who work as developers and then take a career break have tremendous value and ability that we want to help bring back into IT. The industry moves so quickly that one year out can mean many new technologies. Coming back to work after a break can also be a daunting prospect.'

IT services firm Connect has established an internal group named Google Girls in an attempt to both attract and retain more female staff. The group organises events for the women in the company, as well as mentoring, to solidify this minority group.

womenintechnology.co.uk also aims to help women in IT through our job board, which connects job seekers with organisations who are actively looking for more female techies and by organising networking events, which offer advice on how to achieve career success - previous event themes have included 'working smarter, not harder', 'political savvy' and 'positive career management'. It is this support and encouragement that can make a real difference to the number of women in IT.

For those women who have taken maternity leave, for example, companies who make an effort to keep in touch, who offer training and support and who present new opportunities and challenges will be the ones who ultimately win the war for talent as returners will feel confident about their ability to get back into the workplace. But we are not saying that women deserve special treatment - companies should offer this support to male technologists as well - and think about how they can support valuable staff, both men and women, with family responsibilities.

This support must not just come from HR, or from one individual manager, but must be driven throughout the organisation to ensure that staff at every level, both male and female, are on board. As one participant in womenintechnology.co.uk and Microsoft research pointed out, 'Female managers who do not have family are often worse than men towards the needs of mothers.'

Trying to stem the flow of women leaving the profession is one challenge but it's also essential that we work towards attracting them in the first place - those who don't choose to pursue scientific routes early on will not go on to take technical roles. From a young age, girls must learn that there is a wide range of exciting roles available in the technology industry and careers advice must mirror this to combat its image as a boring and 'geeky' profession.

A respondent in our research summed up her views on this: 'Girls should also be made more aware of the variety of jobs IT has - not just the hardcore geeky computer engineering stuff that most university courses offer. For example, business analysis is more akin to journalism than machine coding, application design can include graphic design as well - there are lots of ways to make IT more attractive to women but it doesn't appear to be happening.' The message is clear - IT is a great option for women, with a wide range of opportunities, well-paid work, a dynamic working environment and the ability to work with a range of employers and cutting-edge technology.

With the right encouragement throughout childhood to attract women to the sector, and the necessary level of support for female talent once they reach the technology industry, all parties will benefit. Many women will enjoy successful and rewarding careers while organisations will reap the benefits of more female talent. We still have a lot of work to do but hopefully are moving in the right direction.

About the author

Maggie Berry is director of online job board and career networking group womenintechnology.co.uk