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Microsoft has vowed to track how many women it has certified as engineers after its ignorance of candidates’ genders hampered an academic investigation of lady-friendly training methods.

Open University researchers wanted to know how many women trained in the UK as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSE), how many took the exams, and how many subsequently took jobs.

But, Microsoft - which is providing official support for the British government’s Computer Clubs for Girls scheme - first said it couldn’t give out a gender breakdown of its certified engineer roster, before admitting it simply didn’t know.

Dr. Debbie Ellen, an OU research fellow and co-author of the report, said: “Microsoft said it doesn’t give out this information because of data privacy laws”.

Ellen went straight to the Information Commissioner, the UK’s enforcer of data protection laws. The IC gave her a special ruling that showed Microsoft’s co-operation would not offend the law.

She showed this to her Microsoft contacts, Ram Dhaliwal, training and certification manager at Microsoft, and Bronwyn Kunhardt, Microsoft UK’s head of corporate reputation and diversity.

“Neither of them responded,” she said.

Dhaliwal stuck to his data privacy defence when approached by The Register but, when pressed, admitted it could not share the data because it does not track the gender of its engineering trainees.

“The MCSE goals are owned by the individual, so from a data privacy point of view we don’t hold anything,” he said.

“We hold the data at a world-wide level. The only information we have is how many MCSEs, how many MCEs et cetera. But not gender,” he added.

Diliwal did admit, however, that the data might exist.

Kunhardt, who five months ago took the newly created diversity post at Microsoft UK, vowed to investigate the matter.

“I’m trying to get it put through that we go back through all the MCS applications we have to collect the gender data,” she added.

“I’m trying to get them to collect a whole host of diversity data,” Kunhardt added.

The Open University study - Training and Employment of Women ICT Technicians: a report of the JIVE MCSE project - sought to determine if women-only training environments would help more women become Microsoft certified engineers.

It was not able to draw its conclusion without comparing the success rate of the women only programme it studied (http://www.jivepartners.org.uk) with the success rate of women who take the usual route into Microsoft engineering.

Male training environments can confirm women’s suspicions that IT is an industry for boys. Anecdotal evidence in the OU report found that women were grateful of JIVE’s women-only environment.

Women reported that their training was hindered on regular training courses because they were intimidated by overbearing men.

“Whenever I go on a training course I am normally the only female there!...Whereas the Women’s Workshop...there’s no testosterone flying around for competition,” said one trainee.

“Comparing it to courses where men have been involved...they tend to take over and I sort of sit there like a shy violet at the back and not say anything, whereas with a group of women, it seems to be much easier to make a fool of yourself sometimes and not worry about it,” said another.

Of those women who do go into IT, most get stuck in lowly jobs. Two-thirds of database assistants and clerks are women, according to the ONS, while 80 to 89 per cent of more desirable posts are held by men.

Rachel Burnett, a vice president of the British Computer Society, who is opening a new forum for women in the Autumn, said: “We need to collect information on women in IT.”

“If we had better strategic information that would help us know how we could increase access for women,” she added.

Since 1997 the proportion of women working in IT has fallen by over a quarter, from 27 per cent to 21 per cent, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

For computer engineering jobs the proportion of women in training is as low as five to 10 per cent, according to Azlan Professional services. Fewer are thought to take the exams and subsequently get jobs.®

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