Women in IT: Where are all the female professionals?

Women in IT

The IT sector is ripe with opportunity for talented professionals. As technology has moved to the centre in business, becoming fundamental to how organisations operate, demand for IT expertise has soared. There are many vacancies available for candidates with the necessary skills and experience, and employers are willing to pay a premium for skilled technology professionals.

So with IT professionals having such good career prospects, why is there a shortage of technology professionals, and especially women in IT? The problem has been caused, in part, by the pace of the technology revolution over the last decade or so. Everyone is looking for people to run their technology projects, and this has caught the labour market somewhat off-guard.

But a shortage of entrants to the sector from education is also a problem - despite warnings from within the industry. Not enough young people are studying computing-related subjects at school, and ever fewer are progressing through to university and graduate level. Despite the vast opportunities available for women in IT, students are choosing other career paths.

Is this because of a lack of interest among young people in information technology? Or maybe poor promotion of IT subjects within the education system? Both may be true to some extent. But a quick analysis of the IT industry's gender profile suggests there may be other forces at work, creating barriers to entry for many women in IT to succeed.

IT sector is male-dominated

Essentially, there are very few women in IT jobs in the UK. A new report from e-skills UK and BCS, the Chartered Institute of IT, reveals that just a fifth of all professionals working in the IT sector are female. This is down on a decade ago, although the absolute number of women in the IT workforce has risen. Specialist IT positions are even more male-dominated, with women accounting for just 11 per cent of niche roles.

Why is this the case? According to Karen Price, chief executive at e-skills UK, societal influences and "widespread misperceptions" about IT careers have a part to play. She suggested that many talented females see IT careers as being difficult, and have concerns about IT’s "undeserved anti-social image". Ms Price noted that, however much employers want to recruit women, they can only choose from those who put themselves forward and have the appropriate qualifications.

With the under-representation of women in the IT sector worsening over the last ten years, businesses need to take action to reverse the trend. Ms Price said the shortage needs tackling head-on, with "hard hitting and effective interventions". This involves promoting IT careers at an early stage, while young people are still at school - ensuring they know enough about technology careers to consider them a valid option. Lower female participation rates exist at GCSE level, with the gap increasing at A-Level and continuing into higher education and then the IT professional workforce.

"Women have a significant contribution to make to the IT sector and it is vital for the economy that we ensure they have the opportunity," Ms Price stated. "Employers care deeply about the gender imbalance and are committed to taking action to improve it."

Gender balance offers value

According to BCS, there were just under 1.4 million people working either within the IT industry sector, or in IT roles within other parts of the economy, during 2013. The Office for National Statistics said the industry accounted for an annual gross value added (GVA) of £75 billion in 2012 - approximately eight per cent of the UK total in that year. It believes the continued adoption of IT can generate an additional £47 billion of GVA to the UK economy over the next five to seven years.

BCS said the value of a gender-balanced workforce in such a vibrant sector of the economy is "considered self-evident by most". This is especially the case with the UK facing a challenge to keep up with IT demand, as technology becomes mission-critical for so many businesses and consumers. e-skills UK estimates that 129,000 new entrants are needed each year in the sector, around 22,600 of which will join directly from education. If roughly half the UK workforce - the female half - are overlooking IT careers, it means employers have a much smaller talent pool to pick from.

"We know girls and women are good at computing," commented Gillian Arnold, chair of BCS Women. "And we need to translate that ability into action." She said it is vital to inspire talented female professionals to see IT as an option that offers them great career opportunities. Doing so can not only propel talented women along the road to success in the workplace, but help avert "a real threat" to the UK economy as demand for tech skills continues to rise.