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The case for women in the technology business

IBM's Rebecca George fights her corner

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Interview Last month, the British Computer Society announced the first winners of its Women in IT award, set up to recognise of organisations that have done the most to encourage women into technology and engineering roles. In the end, two companies shared the prize: IBM UK, and Pfizer. Rebecca George, chair of the Women in IT Forum, and director of UK government business at IBM, spoke to The Register to explain how businesses can go about attracting and retaining the best staff.

In her role as Chair of the Women in IT Forum, a DTI-backed pan-industry working group, George says that one of the first things they need to do is demonstrate that there is a financial return for having more diverse organisations.

"A field like application development is, these days, about working in teams," she points out. "Women bring many needed skills to the team, particularly in data analysis, for example. When you are working on the kind of diverse problems that software developers face now, it makes sense that a diverse team will lead to a better output. You need a variety of different approaches to solve things."

But putting a number on this benefit might be tricky. George isn’t arguing that there needs to be a distinct, traceable return on any investment in encouraging diversity, but she is keen to investigate more broadly how the make-up of a workforce affects a company’s performance. She argues that the culture of a company is fundamental to its success or failure in retaining women, and that this is where the effort must go at a corporate level if companies want to have a diverse workforce.

"The kinds of programmes that are attractive to the whole workforce will be the ones that change the culture," she says.

For example, initiatives like flexible working - nominally put in place to make it easier for women to juggle their work and family commitments - have proved just as popular with men. At IBM, 1,000 staff work flexibly – in various ways too, from just working during term time, to working one week on one week off, to swapping every other Monday for a Saturday. Of these 1,000, six are executives, four of whom are men.

George is equally clear about how not to tackle the issue: "This is absolutely not about, and cannot be about positive discrimination. We don’t have quotas, and we don’t have targets."

There is also plenty of work going into attracting women into the field. To do this, you need to start with 11-year olds and persuade them that the IT world isn’t just about sock-and-sandal wearing geeks, and that they can be a part of it too. George, like Professor Wendy Hall, head of the British Computer Society, is adamant that getting to girls while they are still at school is vital. She says research shows people’s value systems are in place by the time they are 14. Dealing with negative stereotypes, and poor impressions of the technology industry must happen before then.

"The main problem here is lack of role models," George says. "If you ask a room full of 11-year olds how many of them know a female programmer, chances are no one will put their hand up. Doctors, lawyers, teachers on the other hand, there are now plenty of role models."

The Women in IT Forum is trying to tackle this end of the process, running computer clubs for girls, visiting schools, running technology workshops and so on. This kind of activity is bearing fruit, and more women are being recruited into IT. George says that this leaves the obvious question of why isn’t the overall number increasing?

"I have my own theories on this, but they are based purely on anecdotal evidence." She suggests that across Europe women seem to be choosing to leave the industry between the ages of 40 and 50, quite possibly to set up on their own.

"The Women in IT Forum is conducting research into this question, and it’ll be interesting to see the results." ®

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