To Get More Women in IT, Stop Treating it as a Gender Issue
By Steve Walker on Apr 23, 2014
A Guest Post from Jane Richardson, Regional Director EMEA, Oracle Academy
There is clearly a perception problem around the suitability and attractiveness of IT as a female profession and solving this will go a long way towards boosting the number of women in the industry.
In some parts of EMEA, women make a significant impression of the work force; for example in the UK, women account for around 47 per cent of the working population. However, these figures are not reflected across the IT industry as roughly 18 per cent of IT workers in the UK are women and in fact only 10 per cent of global internet entrepreneurs are women.
Parts of the Middle East appear to be bucking this trend however. This is a region where the number of women entrepreneurs stands at 35 per cent, well above the global average, and this could well be down to the fact that women in this region see IT as an opportunity to get a foothold in a fulfilling career.
Addressing the perception problem
The current skills gap blighting the IT industry is such that job opportunities really are open to women every bit as much as they are to men. Companies across the world are crying out for people to fill vacancies in highly lucrative professions such as data science, cloud architecture, app development and programming. These opportunities aren’t limited to technology companies: retail, travel, manufacture and nearly every other sector need people who possess technical and analytical skills. As long as the industry continues to make a concerted effort to highlight to women that jobs in IT really are for them we will go some way towards addressing the current gender imbalance.
The most obvious way of solving this problem, and one that governments and IT organisations are already undertaking, is to highlight to women the depth and breadth of career opportunities available. Women such as Ruchi Sanghvi, Vice President of Operations at Dropbox and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo have all forged highly diverse careers at the top of their professions. They provide living proof that the IT industry has moved on leaps and bounds since the days Dame Stephanie Shirley – founder of software company F.I Group (now Xansa) – used the name Steve to help her get work in the in the male-dominated IT industry. The modern IT industry is open to women, but women need to see it as such and, critically, be interested in the work.
And it is not just professions in IT that computer science skills can lead to. Very recently Clara Shih, founder of Hearsay Social, was appointed to the Starbucks board. At just 31 she has taken the seat vacated by another successful female technologist: Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Examples such as these show how a background in IT can lead to all kinds of unexpected career opportunities.
But attracting women to a career in IT must start well before job-seeking age. We have found that girls at the K-12 stage of education (i.e. primary and secondary school) respond best to IT education if it is presented in a creative way. For example, the Oracle Academy Alice training programme encourages young people with little or no programming experience to learn basic Java programming through animation. This approach draws on elements of animation and storytelling that appeal to any young mind, but we have found that it resonates particularly well with girls.
Initiatives such as e-skills UK’s Computing Club for Girls will help address this in the medium term, but for a real long term solution we need to see an overhaul of the way computing is taught in EMEA schools. By teaching it from a young age, as a core skill and with a focus on programming there is every reason to believe the IT gender imbalance can be reduced within a generation.
Removing gender from the debate
Which leads us to the crux of the matter: the real way to tackle the perception problem around IT is to remove notions of gender from the debate and focus instead on treating it as an education issue. A permanent long-term method of bringing a gender balance to IT lies in making the subject gender-neutral from an early age. To do this it needs to be taught to children from a very young age, before they have developed preconceptions on what constitutes male and female subjects. At this young age children will soak up any information given to them, regardless of the subject matter. It is the perfect time to arm them with core IT skills that will stand them in good stead regardless of what they do in later life.In the near future all jobs will require an element of IT use; indeed, the EC has estimated that by as early as 2015 90 per cent of jobs will require IT skills. Whatever career women choose it will require some level of IT proficiency. This is why computer science needs to be taught as a core skill in much the same way that reading, writing and arithmetic is today. Teaching computer science from a young age will arm our future female leaders and re-balance the gender imbalance.