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Mainframe modernisation needs more women – here’s why

22 Nov 2022

With mainframes playing a critical role in IT, Ensono’s Claire Connor explores the importance of gender diversity on the teams that run them.

Mainframes are at the heart of modern IT infrastructure. Organisations rely on them to run applications that process huge quantities of data like bank transactions and insurance records.

With the global mainframe market size set to grow at a compound annual rate of 4.3pc and reach nearly $3m in revenue by 2025, mainframe modernisation teams are now more important than ever. So, we need to cast a reflective eye on the structure of our teams and think about who is included in them.

Recent research from PNAS has found that teams that are gender-diverse are the most successful at problem-solving and function the best collectively. This makes the under-representation of women in mainframe teams all the more alarming.

As mainframes continue to modernise and support organisations’ digital transformation programmes, it is crucial that teams are created in ways that foster a creative culture focused on innovation.

From the start, leaders must build a diverse team that brings voices in from all backgrounds. True innovation cannot occur without a range of voices at the table making an impact.

There are many roles in and across mainframe teams, including system programmers, operators and production control analysts.

Across the board we need to encourage gender diversity, empowering women to bring fresh perspectives to challenge old ways of thinking and help drive change.

A historically male-dominated sector

Reflecting on the last 20 years, we can see how past under-representation of women in mainframe teams has led to a skills gap.

Mainframe has had wavering popularity, particularly as many shifted their focus away from mainframe to developing PC technology in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In 1994, for example, CERN reported that they were phasing out their mainframe technology and that by 1996 they would have moved entirely to ‘new interactive desktop services’.

Moving focus away from mainframe meant that a general gap in knowledge had grown surrounding this technology across the industry. Many expected mainframe to die out and be unplugged indefinitely. So, when their popularity resurged in the mid-2010s, the industry was woefully under-skilled.

When looking at women’s role within this, mainframe popularity waned when there was already a low representation of women in the tech industry. So, when mainframe returned in force, and more women looked to enter the field, the only individuals familiar with the technology were men.

It can be very daunting for women to find themselves as the only female mainframe specialist at the table. Many are left with imposter syndrome. I have felt it myself in my career, working hard but always coming against men who have years more experience.

This has implications for the whole industry. Recent research conducted by PwC in 2022 shows that a quarter of female students have been deterred from a career in tech because it is too male-dominated.

However, it is important to note that under-representation does not mean women have a less significant role to play. On the contrary, it gives them even more importance. As minority voices, women can add new points of view to discussions and extend the diversity of the technology industry.

To effectively innovate anything, you need to have an array of voices in the room, including individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity, equity and inclusion are critical across industries, and mainframe is no exception.

How to encourage a diverse workforce

Mainframe teams must be built to be representative and diverse. Mainframe modernisation is defined as an innovation of an existing system, and I have quickly recognised in my career that my voice – and other women – could be a catalyst for change.

It can be nerve-wracking to enter a new industry or role, especially if you’re a woman and entering a male-dominated industry. So team leaders must provide the right support to their team and coach them through their roles.

Leaders need to empower women to be confident in their talent and build their teams to be inclusive and diverse.

The onus is not just on senior leaders. We must all unite to support women in this industry. So here are some tips on how to help yourself and others stand firm in your role regardless of your mainframe department.

Be confident in your skills

Never assume that your peers know more than you do. A recent YouGov study found that 21pc of women in the UK workforce negatively perceived themselves in this way.

As awareness of imposter syndrome rises, team leaders must support their female team members and empower them to feel confident in themselves.

Your inexperience provides you with a fresh perspective and an open-minded approach to the task at hand. This makes you an invaluable asset to the team.

If you’re a team leader, express confidence in yourself and give younger peers time to shine. Provide them with responsibility and trust them to do well. You may even learn something from a junior member and stumble across a better way to run a project.

Listen to all team members

It’s important you listen to the opinions and ideas of all team members, regardless of age and experience. Every team member was selected due to their personal attributes and perspective – don’t overlook these when working towards a goal.

If you’re new to the team, act with confidence. Ask questions if you’re confused and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and becoming an industry leader takes time. So put the work in and be open to learning from your peers.

Speak up

If you have an idea that you think will work, mention it during a meeting. Even if it comes to nothing, it may inspire someone else to come up with a solution. Act confidently, make your voice heard and allow your ideas to shine.

It is also important to make yourself an advocate for others. Recent data from Deloitte shows that during 2022, 59pc of women have experienced at least one example of non-inclusive behaviour in the workplace, an increase of 7pc from research from 2021.

It is crucial that we make mainframe an inclusive sector for all, so if you hear or see something that you know is wrong, speak up and enact change.

Being a proactive advocate will strengthen your team and foster a collaborative environment where everyone can participate comfortably.

Actively working together to stamp out gender discrimination will also encourage more women to join the industry and promote more diversity in the future.

Diversity remains a problem across all technology departments, not just mainframe modernisation.

However, as technology advances and more companies digitalise, we are responsible for ensuring our development is innovative.

The only way to do that is to break free from the confines of singular opinions and incorporate a mix of diverse voices and perspectives.

By Claire Connor

Claire Connor is a senior mainframe solution architect at IT company Ensono.

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