Women under-represented in IT

21 Apr 2003

Only 35pc of all employees in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector are women, according to ICT Ireland, the representative body for the high-tech sector. Significantly, the number of men in the sector grew by 24pc between 1997 and 2001, while the number of women during that time grew by 16pc.

A closer look at the figures, however, reveals that women are making inroads. In 1997, 23.2pc of positions at senior level were held by women; this grew to 28pc in 2001. The proportion of female professionals in the sector grew from 19.4pc to 21.2pc and those working in the technical field climbed from 26pc to 30pc of the total in 2001.

“There aren’t as many women applying for jobs in the ICT sector, but within the existing structure, they are gradually moving up as a proportion of the total. There is still a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction,” says Brendan Butler, director of ICT Ireland.

Cathal Friel, the new chairman of the Irish Software Association (ISA), highlights the lack of role models as being a major reason why there are not more women in the IT sector.

There are very few women chief executives in the indigenous software industry, he says. “Up to two years ago, there were no women chief executives on an international level. Now, two of the world’s top 10 IT companies have women chief executives – Anne Mulcahy of Xerox and Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard.”

The absence of women at the top of the industry is only part of the problem. The historical lack of women in the ICT industry stems back to childhood influences and education. Girls’ schools are often less inclined to push their students towards the sciences and girls are often not encouraged to take up a career in software engineering by their families. For example, a mere 8pc of girls take physics for the Leaving Certificate, compared to a quarter of all boys. A survey of 800 secondary school students, cited by ICT Ireland, shows that 77pc of boys and 44pc of girls would consider a career in engineering.

The relative lack of interest among girls in taking up technology/engineering courses must be viewed in the general context of an overall decline in the number of students applying for such courses. Latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show a 7pc increase in the number of students applying for degree courses in engineering/technology related subjects to 7,736. However, this is down from 9,423 in 2001.

At recruitment level, Olivia Galvin, manager of technology recruitment at CPL Resources, an IT recruitment consultancy, says the split of applicants for jobs in IT is 70pc male, 30pc female.

Boosting the female representation in the ICT sector needs to be encouraged, considering the expected skills shortages in the coming years. “About 30,000 additional jobs are likely to be created in the ICT sector over the next seven years. [If there is not an increase in technology/engineering graduates], there could be skills shortages of up to 5,000 in the next year or two,” says Butler.

Women can bring many much-needed skills to the ICT sector, according to Mary Cryan, director of Prospectus Technology Consultants and former chairperson of the ISA.

“Women are good at team-building, working with clients and project management; they are good at meeting deadlines and are loyal to a company. There are opportunities there for women to grab. Women tend to think that they have to be able to do a job 120pc before they will apply for it, while men will apply if they think they are 70pc up to it and will train themselves up later, which is the right attitude.”

Worldwide organisation Women in Technology International (WITI) set up in Ireland a year ago to represent the diverse range of women working in technology roles in Ireland.

A survey of its 200 members published this year shows that respondents believed that gender discrimination is worse in the ICT sector than in other sectors of industry. The majority of respondents, who were mainly in senior and middle management, felt that it was harder to gain promotion in the ICT sector than in other sectors. In addition, 67pc believed that on occasion they hadn’t received the recognition they deserved.

The members felt they had the skills to do the job, but that they didn’t do the necessary politicking and networking. They also identified problems in relation to the lack of family-friendly work practices.

Annette Condon, head of communications at Dell and a founder of WITI in Ireland, says the organisation aims to help women to help themselves to develop core competencies and to provide them with mentoring and networking opportunities. She notes that 2,000 of Dell’s Irish staff of 4,300 are women, but their numbers are still relatively low at senior level.

By Sorcha Corcoran