Science: Why Stephanie changed her name to Steve: Lynne Curry says men still dominate computer contracting - but things are finally beginning to change

Jane Barclay, a tax consultant with a master's degree in business, has been brought in to spearhead the development of a new contracting agency that will supply staff exclusively for personal computer networks. Plan-Net services joins 400 other agencies in the market place; Jane Barclay joins little more than a handful of senior women.

Considering the provenance of the computer industry - young, energetic, forward-thinking, virtually born and raised within the last 30 years - it is strange that it has remained such a blokeish arena. It is plainly not that women are incapable of grasping the technical side - veterinary science, the most demanding of scientific disciplines, now has a virtually equal balance of the sexes - but that it simply does not appeal. Women contractors are estimated to make up less than 10 per cent of the market, although there is no reason why they should find the contracting lifestyle (uncertain, possibly nomadic but potentially exceptionally rewarded) less attractive than men, at least for part of their lives.

Universities still have a huge imbalance between male and female students: Queen Mary and Westfield College, part of the University of London, is delighted with a 'blip' that has given it 25 per cent of women students this year, much higher than usual. Dr Hilary Johnson, lecturer in human computer interaction, organises seminars for women in computing as part of the college's 'supportive' environment. 'In terms of careers, most of our female students go on to further study as it's becoming the norm that to get a job in the City or finance you need to have an MSc.'

Laurence Holt, 29, managing director of the bespoke software providers Quidnunc, one of the sharp younger generation of software companies, recalls only eight or nine women out of 90 on his computer science degree course at Imperial College, London, although one of the three directors of his company, Cho Oliver, is a woman. Of the 28 staff two programmers, one project manager and the business manager are women, while at Imperial College, women continue to scrape into double figures in the annual computer science intake.

'Most of our customers are male so it can be a positive thing to introduce a woman who is clearly also very capable and as technically able as anybody else we've got,' he says. 'We don't deliberately send a woman, but they they do get a good reaction, and I'd be quite happy to take as as many as I can find. Our number is in proportion to the number of applications we receive.'

It is not lack of appeal, however, that keeps most women who do come into the industry out of the boardrooms. Once in, they are still regaled by this most modern of sectors with the same old prejudices. The fact that women can be, quite simply, more pleasant and human to deal with no doubt accounts for the fact that most of them in the contract business appear in sales and marketing and rarely at directors' luncheons.

To really get on as a woman, it seems, feminine traits must still be suppressed. Highly successful women still come trailing the same old adjectival strings: tough, hard- bitten, fierce, less Anita Roddick than Boadicea. All these are familiar to the current female trailblazers. The doyenne of computing, given an OBE for her services to industry, actually changed her first name to get her past the application stage. But as new technology filters into all areas of business and commerce, things are changing.

Steve Shirley (christened Stephanie), changed her name because her letters failed to receive replies. Then, finding that all-or-nothing demands on her working time were not compatible with her domestic responsibilities, she set up the FI group, now a 1,000-strong computing services and training company which has just received a major order from the Co-operative Bank. Now retired - she remains the group's life president - she is still campaigning for the recognition of capable women and thinks their day could be on its way.

'There is a growing perception that women find it easier to adjust to new methods and are happier with multi-skilling in undemarcated structures,' Mrs Shirley says. 'Women are therefore the involuntary heralds of the new workforce, enabled by technology to bring a human scale back into many organisational activities.

'Management in the 1990s is less by command and control and more by building teamwork and empowering individuals.'

Rosemary Horwood is director of IT at Barclaycard, headhunted from her last post. Twenty years ago she had to press for a staff mortgage when she became systems and programming manager with Access in Southend. When she graduated in physics in the 1960s, one of three women on her course, she would apply out of defiance for management trainee schemes which declared that women need not apply. Having established her ability so roundly, she is now more relaxed about using what she describes as a woman's approach to problem-solving.

'Women have a bigger intuitive approach. In a male environment, you find yourself justifying that, whereas men are working it out systematically. I also believe that women like to feel they are really on top of the job and sometimes don't push themselves enough. I have to encourage women to take the step to the next job; quite often with men I find myself telling them they're not quite ready. There are women in my organisation who I know are very capable but currently not applying for promotion.'

Mrs Horwood has two female colleagues at the same level: Christine Gale at Barclays Financial Services and Linda Taris, recently appointed within BZW. Women will come into their own, she says, as IT filters more into the workplace.

Clare Brett, resource administration manager with the Coventry- based agency Systems Resources, describes the few women contractors she deals with as 'more businesslike, particularly at managerial level'. One senior purchaser at a major bank says this is because they juggle so many professional and domestic tasks that they are accustomed to combining brevity with efficiency. Although she is in charge of a pounds 20m annual budget, she feels she could and should be higher in the hierarchy. 'Although this is changing, in most businesses women are regarded as having a very professional approach but there is still this idea that they're going to leave and have a baby and therefore will be diverted.'

She feels IT in retailing is one area in which women do not have to act like men, and that women are better negotiators. 'Where you have women purchasers, they tend to react better to individuals not giving them the hard sell, and many male sales people still have the hard-sell attitude entrenched, even when they're dealing with people they know well.' Perhaps because of her manner - brisk and to the point - she is rarely patronised.

Quantum Contracts, a direct contract agency, attributes part of its success to the consummate selling skills of one of its two female directors, Doreen Smith. Jenni Reid, boss of the totally female-staffed Adlink agency in London, says her clients prefer to deal with women. 'If you establish your own business you're not clawing your way up other people's ladder,' she says. 'I find women more gentle, although to make it they may have to be more aggressive. Men don't discuss personal things because they feel it's giving away power.

'The conflict comes when it comes to having to deal with things like chasing for payment, and the woman who signs my legal letters only uses her initials.' Ms Reid's husband, a freelance artwork designer, now works for her. She did not hold it against him when they were on holiday in Cyprus and the waiter asked his permission to comply with her request for a second glass of wine.

(Photograph omitted)

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