The IT factor

IT has one of the worse reputations for gender pay gap and a poor male/female ratio. How can more women be attracted to a sector which is experiencing skills shortages? spoke to FDM Group’s Sheila Flavell to find out.

IT has a bit of an image problem with women. A recent report by the Chartered Management Institute showed IT had the biggest gender pay gap – at 17,000 pounds – between men and women doing similar jobs at a senior level.

According to the Chartered Institute for IT, only 14.4% of IT professionals are female and only one in four service delivery people employees. It is not surprising then that in this male-dominated industry only 16% of jobseekers are women.

Yet women are missing a trick by shunning the IT sector, particularly at a time when many are being made redundant. According to a recent e-Skills report, over 550,000 IT roles will be available over the next five years.

The IT sector is also missing a trick by not targeting women more effectively. The general consensus among IT employers is that they will have problems filling these roles because of a skills shortage within the sector.

In the third quarter of 2010, the number of jobs advertised within the sector jumped to 101,000, while the number of IT professionals seeking work fell to 100,000.

Sheila Flavell [pictured], chief operating officer of the FDM Group, the UK’s largest IT graduate employer, says the main problem IT has is with recruiting women. She adds that the problem begins when girls are choosing their A Level and university options – only 15% of students doing computer science at university are female, for instance.

Part of the problem is IT’s geeky image, which she says is a bit of a myth. “It’s a bit unfortunate as the IT industry has developed rapidly over the last 20 years,” she says, adding that in fact the first developer was a woman, Ada Lovelace. “Women still feel that if they opt for a career in IT they will be surrounded by socially challenged individuals, but the industry has changed. IT employees now have to interact with their colleagues. They are at the forefront of business decisions. The requirement for geeks has been buried.”

Key roles include lots of jobs which are similar in other industries, such as business and support analysts.

She adds that the FDM Group stopped pure IT training long ago. “Soft skills are now as important as IT skills now,” she says.

FDM Group is keen to boost the number of women in IT. Unusually for IT, it has a majority of women board members. Six of its 11 board members are female. “It’s important because women view the world differently and are more tuned into women’s issues. Those views help to make a business more balanced and relevant to a wider group of people,” says Flavell.

She herself has always been a working mum and says her children get a positive work ethic from seeing their mother hold down a job. She has two daughters, now aged 23 and 21, and gained three more through her second marriage. “I understand what women have to juggle,” she says, adding that working mums can work full time if they have the right support. “There are trigger points such as return to work which is a very sensitive time when women need extra support. When women first have children they think the newborn stage is the most challenging. They don’t realise that all stages are challenging.Women tend to think they have to be superhuman to be seen as valued members of staff, but they don’t.”

Flavell, who is on the FDM Group board, leads a women in IT forum and plays on the IT girls netball team. “Men have their football teams,” she says, “and they help them to network.”

FDM Group also offers taster sessions for women in all age groups which allow them to look at the career options in the sector. And it offers a mentoring programme to promote career progression for women. To tackle the problem at root cause, FDM Group offer career talks in schools and tasters sessions working in an IT company from the age of 16. They also have student brand managers who, as well as promoting the company in their university, get to work in the organisation in the holidays. FDM Group recruits around 1,000 graduates a year.
Flavell says the key attributes for women who want to work in IT is to be a logical thinker and be reasonably good at maths and science. “You don’t need a computer science background,” she says. “You just need the ability to pick up the IT skills necessary for today’s workplace. Our training programme takes graduates from all disciplines, including English and philosophy. The degree is not important; it’s the aptitude to learn IT skills.”

Flavell adds: “The IT industry is missing out a huge talent pool if they don’t target and support women. Without women the IT sector is inevitably facing a crisis which will have a damaging effect on the economy. We need more women.”

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