Kasey Cassells (Global) - Gender Equality in the IT Industry - Where Have All the Women Gone?

By its very nature, IT is a forward-thinking industry. However, there is one distinctly old-fashioned viewpoint lurking around, one that concerns gender equality. In many countries in the modern world, women are climbing high up the career ladder in the industries of their choice - but IT is still a largely male-dominated area.

In the US, for example, women make up 56% of the professional workforce, whereas the amount of IT professionals who are female is just 25%. In the early days of computing, women were heavily involved. Famous names such as Ada Lovelace (who became the world's first female programmer in 1892) and Grace Hopper (a pioneer in 1950's computer science) set the tone for women in the industry, but there have been few to follow in their footsteps. In fact, in the 45 year history of the Turing Award for contributions to computer science, there have only been two female winners - and the first was not until 2006.

The IT industry did benefit from the woman's touch during a brief spike of interest in the 1980s. In 1985, 37% of computing and information sciences degrees were awarded to women - although this is still a relatively small percentage compared to overall university applicants. By 2009, this number had dropped dramatically to around 18%.

Despite all of this, IT is not a sexist industry. These numbers show that not only is there a lack of female IT professionals in the workplace, but there are few women even trying to get into the industry. Most companies are actively trying to attract women into IT jobs but there are very few female applicants - so what is putting them off?

A problem that faces women across all professions is family commitment. Many women welcome the flexibility in their career to be able to start and grow a family. IT can be a particularly stressful and demanding career with unsociable hours that may not be appealing to women wishing to balance work and family life.

IT also has a reputation as a man's game, which is creating a vicious cycle that is putting women off wanting to get involved. The male-dominated IT department can be intimidating, and younger women looking to train in IT could be put off by the lack of female counterparts to share their experiences with.

A more controversial theory, presented by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers as recently as 2005, is that "innate differences" between the sexes make it more difficult for women to understand technology. However, numerous experts have rejected this theory, stating that women have the aptitude necessary for a career in IT, but are put off by the points discussed above.

It is not just a matter of balance that makes gender equality important in the technology industry. Unlike the huge competition seen in other areas, IT is currently facing a skills shortage. In the third quarter of 2010, there were 1000 less applicants than there were IT jobs, according to recruitment experts Pareto. With applications from women seen as especially valuable, an increase in female IT professionals could certainly help to bridge the skills gap.

So what is being done to address the situation? To get women interested in the technology field, it is important to catch them while they are young, before they become too familiar with the stereotypical ‘geeky' and male-dominated view of IT. Many organizations and educational establishments are working hard to encourage applications from women. Microsoft, for one, run a yearly program aimed at girls of high school age to spark their interest in IT.

With the help of programs like this and perhaps with time, the gender gap can be closed. It may take a lot of work to change the view of a male-run industry into an appealing career choice for young women, but there is no reason IT should not catch up with other industries to strike a fairer gender balance.

By Kasey Cassells, e-Content Writer, IDG Connect



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