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Tomorrow’s Women, Tomorrow’s World

It doesn’t bode well when some of the brightest IT minds in the country can’t get the projector to work.  Sue Black covered it up well but yesterday’s BCS event didn’t get off to a flying start.

The evening was to discuss the perennial question of the lack of women in technical jobs and what can be done about it.  I wasn’t expecting a lot of new debate but Sue, who was chairing the panel, kicked off with an interesting point.  In the 60’s and 70’s IT departments were about 50% women.  For the last 20 years the number has stabilised at about 20%.  So all the initiatives that Sue and the other panel members have been involved with have failed.

(Alison Phipps, author of a book about women’s participation in ICT, comes to the same conclusion:  good for us for trying but the initiatives haven’t really made any major impact.)

Rebecca George, a partner at Deloitte and with 20 years experience at IBM, said that the this lack of impact was because we’d been trying small, independent and fractured initiatives.  She chairs the BCS’s Women’s Panel Strategic Forum and is now working with other bodies, networking groups and the government to try to encourage only two or three major initiatives, done with men and other diversity groups, to try to consolidate the effort.  “If we make the IT profession good for everyone it will be good for women,” she said last night.

Getting women into technology jobs, including IT project management roles, needs to start early.  Rob Macredie, Professor of Interactive Systems at Brunel, said that “the number of women studying Computer Science has been woeful.”  He believes that the numbers get lower the more highly the university is ranked.  And this gender imbalance is also reflected in the staff.

Education turned out to be a touchy subject:  someone from the audience pointed out that the reason there was better diversity ‘in the old days’ was that Computer Science courses didn’t exist.  Employers had no choice but to take Medieval History graduates and train them.  Rob said that these days employers expected universities to turn out graduates with the ability to do jobs.  The employment market creates the need for educational specialism.  If you want to recruit a project manager who has learned their trade, you pick a PMP or a PRINCE2 Practitioner, not an English graduate who needs training.  However, as Rob said, if you are going to have educational specialism, you might as well get a good gender balance on the course.

“The reason I’m still here,” said Rebecca, “is because we will make a difference if we keep on trying.”  I hope she’s right, as the best teams – on IT projects and elsewhere – are those that are the most diverse.

You can follow the discussion as it unfolded on Twitter by searching for #bcstwtw.

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