Queens of the tech age

Female techies are still thin on the ground. Clint Witchalls reports on an initiative that aims to change all that
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The Independent Online

The ceremony, which took place last Thursday, turned out to be a breath of fresh air. It was lively and hip, with not a whiff of anorak. If all the people who worked in IT were as sociable and lively, perhaps more women would want to join the industry. But it takes a brave woman to buck the trend and work in a male-dominated environment, which is why BlackBerry has created these awards to celebrate women's achievements in IT, and encourage more women to enter the field.

I asked Charmaine Eggberry, who heads up the European operation of Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, why there was a need for these awards. "We wanted to celebrate women's achievements in technology and using technology," she said. "And to recognise that women have made great strides and that their stories aren't being told. There are so many women doing amazing things, and we thought, why aren't we telling anybody that?"

Meg Munn, the MP and deputy minister for Women and Equality, kicked off proceedings with some sobering statistics. According to an Office for National Statistics survey, the number of women employed in technology industries has fallen from 27 per cent in 1997 to just 21 per cent in 2005. "There's a lot to do, and that's why these awards [are] to give a boost to women in technology and to say, these women can do it, so can you," said Munn. She also spoke of a recent DTI report that showed that women are quitting IT in their forties and fifties. It's not just about getting women into IT, it's about retaining them once they're there.

There were seven categories, covering the private sector, the public and non-profit sector, small businesses, academia, and the media. There was also one for best woman mentor, and one for best company advancing women in technology. A final award was given to the overall winner, for the "single most impressive contribution to women and technology". That prize went to Jackie Edwards, an IT lecturer at De Montfort University. Seven years ago, Edwards signed up, as a mature student for the Women's Access to Information Technology (Wait) course. Since then, she has been involved in developing the course. Speaking of her access programme, she said: "We've turned housewives and people with no qualifications into graduates. And I am proud of them all."

Speaking to the finalists after the awards, I was keen to know who their role models had been. Nearly all of them said that there weren't any inspiring women in the field at the time they were choosing their careers. Hopefully, the following list of winners will at least provide a start.

BEST WOMAN IN TECHNOLOGY - ACADEMIA, AND OVERALL WINNER: Jackie Edwards

"It's fantastic to have won," said Edwards. "I will be able to ask for anything I want now! I'm so surprised it's me because there was such a lot of good competition." She believes that technology is the future, and that if women aren't participating in it, they will be excluded from it. Edwards teaches De Montfort University's women's access course, which has been running since 1989. "It was way ahead of its time in addressing the imbalance," she says. "I think all universities are going to have to get to grips with the fact that IT is not just for A-level students any more."

BEST WOMAN IN TECHNOLOGY, PRIVATE SECTOR: Gillian Kent

Kent is managing director of MSN (Microsoft Network), the biggest internet service in the UK. Half of Kent's team are women."We find that the market expands so quickly that finding talented people is challenging," she said. "If this inspires younger women to come through, it's an excellent thing to do."

BEST WOMAN IN TECHNOLOGY, PUBLIC AND NON-PROFIT SECTOR: Annette Vernon

Vernon is chief information officer at the Department for Constitutional Affairs. She joined in 1999, and has been working to raise the importance of IT in the courts ever since. In spite of having convinced many senior civil servants of the importance of IT, Vernon was humble. "It's not about one person, it's about the team," she said. "So I'm proud of all the people that helped me get there."

BEST WOMAN IN TECHNOLOGY, SMALL BUSINESS: Vicky Reeves

Seven years ago, 31-year-year-old Reeves founded Chameleon Net, a web development company, in her spare bedroom. Today, Chameleon has 21 staff and is based in Soho Square. Clients include Unicef, Cable & Wireless and Hilton International. "There aren't enough women in IT," said Reeves. "When I did my degree [at Hertfordshire University], there were just six women out of 120."

BEST WOMAN MENTOR: Sue McDougall

McDougall, a commercial and business controls executive at IBM, runs a "surgery" to provide advice on careers, education and relationships with line managers. "I'm passionate about encouraging women to work in the IT sector," she says. "At IBM, I mentor 10 women at different levels and with different career paths." She encourages them to take risks and think about other roles at IBM.

BEST FEMALE TECHNOLOGY WRITER: Jo Best

Best is a well-respected technology reporter for CNET Networks' online news service, silicon.com, and her articles can get over 100,000 hits. "It was a privilege to meet so many talented women," said Best. "It's important to let people know it's not just a boys' club. I look forward to the day when women in technology is the norm rather than the exception."

BEST COMPANY ADVANCING WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY: Accenture

"We're delighted to receive recognition for all our hard work and effort in this area," said Punita Gajree of Accenture. "All technology companies want to see more women in IT. To be a leading-edge company in that area is great news for us and, hopefully, for future employees."

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