Women in IT

April 2006

Businesswoman using laptop'Never has there been a more exciting time to look for a career in IT,' according to former BCS President Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton. 'The opportunities for travel, good salaries and working in exciting and dynamic team environments are transforming the image of the computer geek to something more like computer chic.'

For some reason, though, the exciting opportunities are regarded as too hot to handle and are kept a secret from girls and women. As the UK strives to maintain its position as a creative hotbed of innovation the IT industry continues to expand; more not less IT professionals are needed.

So where are the women? At a recent careers convention one woman computer scientist said: 'the work is varied, stimulating, flexible and, compared to other industries, well paid. It’s a great place to be.'

In fact, the opportunities for women to enter employment in the IT sector have never been greater, the skills that they excel in are very much in demand and they add diversity to teams.

Given the diversity of IT opportunities, some are sure to appeal to women, and throughout this guide there are articles illustrating the varied areas of work within the broad term IT.

Furthermore, given that IT-related jobs are to be found within almost every organisation, they allow great flexibility of career choice allowing you to target ones with a good working environment.

These are often the most innovative and successful companies. IT employers shortlisted for the BCS Women in IT Award in 2006 included Thoughtworks, West Dunbartonshire Council, Astra Zeneca and, the winners, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

You can find out 'where women want to work' by visiting http://www.www2wk.com or the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work survey that takes place each year. Some women friendly employers recruit through www.womenintechnology.co.uk. The site has a diary of events, hints and tips for your CV and guidance on networking.

The best employers recognise the importance of retaining their female staff and therefore encourage women to combine families and work. With so many IT jobs being shift or project based, employers are able to offer many different flexible styles of working.

The investment in training staff means that employers are keen to encourage women to keep in touch and return after a career break. For example, one database manager who is employed by the police works a shifted day, starting at 09.30 and finishing at 15.00, enabling her to collect her son from school.

Taking a break

Your work environment is especially important if you ever need a career break when options such as flexible working, home working and other family friendly policies such as workplace nurseries become important.

It is also vital to work for a company with policies and managers who respect the need for a reasonable work-life balance. Good employers are not always big organisations; in smaller ones colleagues are often sensitive to each others' needs and happy to give and take.

Returning after a career break is something that can seem daunting. Confidence can be low, skills seem out of date and technology has moved on. Yet there are schemes around that offer training and bursaries to help you retrain.

One of the biggest benefits can be planning for your break: making sure you keep in touch by attending regional IT meetings, reading your journal or IT newsletter, or keeping up to date with online training programmes.

The EU-funded Equalitec project has a great online resource to support women's IT careers, but also is running a variety of courses to help women retrain and gain work experience.

The value added by women

Government, professional bodies, education bodies and the industry itself are realising and stressing the importance of having a balance of men and women in the IT workforce.

The best employers recognise the importance of retaining their female staff and therefore encourage women to combine families and work.

Teams made up of 'clones' just aren't as innovative and creative as teams of people with different experiences. A recent report on IT skills trends stated that many of the organisations that are most imaginative in their use of IT have a higher than average proportion of women in posts, suggesting that others are seriously losing out. 

Innovation is of course crucial in IT. Take Google as an example of how innovation leads to success. Google is bursting with innovation thanks to its software engineers spending 20% of their working week being creative, working on their own projects.

An example of a successful innovation by a woman is Peridot, an invention that ensures web links always point to the intended content. The product was invented by Megan Beynon of IBM and it recently won her the Female Innovator of the Year 2006 award, as well as being added to IBM's portfolio of products. 

Good communication skills are also an important quality for IT professionals. Being in IT does not usually mean being isolated with your computer. Working closely with customers, clients and other end-users of software is now regarded as one of the most important parts of the development process.

And the IT professionals who enjoy the best rewards are those who successfully combine technical knowledge and these so-called 'softer' skills. This is where women can excel. Many studies have indicated that women generally exhibit good communication skills. Another well-known strength of many women is team-working, which is necessary as most IT jobs involves working in teams.

As more women are finding themselves in senior positions they are increasingly demanding that their potential suppliers bring a diverse team to the negotiating table. As one woman who is a senior IT professional said: 'I want to do business with someone I can relate to - who I can talk shoes with. And believe me, I have a BIG budget'.

But this demand for contractor teams to be diverse isn't just to satisfy the demands of the contract holder for interesting conversation. It is because the contract holder values the contribution of diverse teams of people. Women bring that diversity of experience, skills and approach to problem-solving.

You won't be alone

Various groups exist to support women in IT and technology in addition to Equalitec mentioned earlier. The BCS has a specialist group, BCSWomen, which is an online news group that offers a CV clinic service, career development workshops and networking meetings, both technical and social.

BCSWomen also offers role models, women who are happy to talk about their experiences and chat over different career options with you. As well as the BCS mentoring programme for members, BCSWomen works with MentorSET to find and train mentors for its members.

Women@CL is a project that is running events and workshops around the country. For women in research it holds the annual Hopper conference with a poster competition.

Intellect is the industry body for the IT sector and it has a Women in IT Forum that has a programme of events taking place around the country every quarter.

They are a great way to find out what is happening in the industry and to meet and network with people. Added to these are the well attended networking events by www.womenintechnology.co.uk giving women in IT fabulous opportunities to network and work out their next career move.

A Girl Geek has been defined as someone who is female and has an interest in technology, particularly computing and new media. She is not even necessarily technically minded. Suddenly it's cool to be a gadget girl. 

In fact as gadgets get smaller and cooler we could argue that we have just been waiting until things were cool enough for us to be associated with them. Finally women are getting stuck in and helping to create, to innovate and make the gadgets we really want. So join in!

Jan Peters is manager, BCS's Women’s Forum, which works with BCSWomen and connects with other UK women in IT groups and organisations.

This article was written in April 2006 for the 2007-2008 edition of Inside Careers: www.insidecareers.co.uk. Inside Careers logo