Where did all the IT girls go?

The crisis in female recruitment in the technology industry - with just one in five jobs filled by women - is being blamed on its geeky, male-dominated image. But, asks Simon Quicke, are Government initiatives the solution?
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The Independent Online

Women rarely find bearded men with greasy pony-tails hunched over computers appealing, so it's no surprise that the geeks are being blamed for the female recruitment crisis in the IT industry.

The battle to end the male dominance of the computing world has been taken up by Patricia Hewitt, minister for Trade and Industry, and in January she will unveil plans designed to increase the number of women working in the technology sector.

The main plank of the DTI's attack will be to try and change the negative image that computing has for women and convince schoolgirls that they can find an enjoyable, fulfilling career in the world of microchips.

"We need to give IT an image makeover to make it more attractive to women. Only 22 per cent of the technology workforce is currently made up of women, and the image that many schoolgirls have is more of computer geek than computer chic," says Hewitt.

Government figures also reveal only 21 per cent of computing graduates are female and once in the workplace only 9 per cent of jobs that directly involve developing technology will be staffed by women.

The e-skills National Training Organisation is one of the groups that is putting muscle behind the attempts to rid technology-related careers of their negative perceptions.

In research the group carried out with Mori earlier this year it concluded that the geek image was the largest turn-off for girls and is hoping to end the nerd associations through its Image Project.

"There is a recruitment crisis with schoolgirls. They are fine until they reach the age of 11 and 12 and then they start formal computer lessons and they are boring," says Anne Cantelo, director for the Image Project.

She is actively courting drama producers to ensure television stops rolling out the stereotypical computer nerd every time technology is written into a story line.

"Programmes like EastEnders can be tremendously influential on schoolgirls, and we are also gathering together female role models so you don't get the pony-tailed men being wheeled out on the news to talk about technology," she adds.

But outside Government circles little hopes are being placed on the success of the schemes being planned for next year and those women working in the industry are pessimistic about the future.

"In terms of the numbers of girls going into IT, if you were being optimistic, you would say it is static, but the numbers are declining," says Mandy Chessell, master inventor at IBM.

She recalls a lonely time as a schoolgirl embarking on a career in computing and believes little has changed since her classroom experiences.

"I started being the only girl doing the subjects needed to get into technology and I got a shock when I turned up for lessons and all the other girls had disappeared," she says.

Her determination to stick with her chosen career has paid off with a senior position at IBM, which comes with company-wide recognition for her leading work in developing e-business software.

Chessell does her bit to try and convince girls that computing is a good career choice at the Excite summer camps IBM organises and believes women in the industry should try to act as role models.

"At the summer camps we show the fun of engineering and technology. We choose subjects that will help girls understand because sometimes the industry emphasises things that young men would be interested in but not those interesting to young women," she adds.

Targeting girls when they are still open-minded about technology is not just isolated to IBM; most large IT companies run various open days for young women on the brink of deciding which career to choose.

Sun Microsystems is among those firms that open their doors for girls' days to generate excitement about a prospective career in computing.

"When you are at school and thinking about careers, the broad aspects of working in technology are not communicated," says Louise Proddow, marketing director at Sun.

She believes more money is needed to build on the enthusiasm generated at summer camps and open days rather than more ambitious Government schemes: "There have been task forces set up and White Papers written, and I thought the whole idea of getting more women into IT was happening anyway."

Claire Law, founder of the social group Women in IT, is also sceptical about the chances of the status quo being changed by the Government and suggests attempts to do so will fail.

"Having some woman in the DTI say that they are really pushing to get women jobs hasn't got any strength," she adds. "Technology is not seen as feminine and I don't think in the future women are going to go into a technical role, because it doesn't appeal to them."

Women working in the industry have reacted to their minority position by setting up their own organisations to provide support and meeting opportunities. In the last 18 months, Women in IT and High Tech Women have been launched to cater for this audience.

"We are responsible for our own training because people aren't necessarily going to give it to us. We make sure we have access to skills, confidence building and information," says Lucy Marcus, founder of High Tech Women.

"Technology is no different to any other industry, and because of the new economy we thought it might be, but it's not. It is not just about technology there is something bigger going on and women should be given equal opportunity and equal pay," she adds.

Cantelo agrees that it is a big task to change the gender balance and it will take many years to substantially increase the numbers of women working in computing. But she is adamant that it is a quest that has to be set out on.

"It is important you do it because IT is about designing all our futures and it's not right for one small group to design it for the rest of us."