Women in IT should take a more ambitious approach to their careers by seizing opportunities in an increasing demand for business people with soft skills, industry experts say.
The issue of career development has gained prominence for women in recent times, as is evident from annual surveys conducted by the FITT (Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications). According to FITT, 38 percent of survey respondents highlighted career development as a topic of interest in 2006, increasing from only 25 percent in 2005.
Speaking at an FITT careers seminar on Thursday, Penny Coulter, president of the IT Recruitment Industry Association, outlined a shift in employer requirements from technical skills to more general soft skills, emphasizing the avenues available to IT staff of both technical and non-technical backgrounds.
"Perhaps women need to think more like men and plan their careers with promotion in mind," she said.
Coulter made mention of an IT worker who progressed from being a programmer to an analyst programmer, a senior analyst programmer, and eventually, a solutions architect. Another worker was said to have moved from being a business analyst, to a senior business analyst, to business transformation manager.
Current DCITA (Department of Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts) statistics reveal a longstanding gender bias in IT workers, with an average of only one woman to every four men employed in the industry. Interestingly, the bias was found to be less pronounced in jobs that Coulter called "more ambiguously defined", such as business analyst and consultant roles, as well as project managing.
Coulter attributed the lack of women in IT to an inability to attract women to what she said was an outdated reputation of a highly technical, antisocial industry, putting the onus on industry players to promote a more attractive work culture and dispel IT's geeky stereotype.
"Having been in recruitment for a long period of time, I think that no matter how good the job is, the culture of a company plays an important role in a person's career."
"It is essential that we break away from the traditional nerdy stereotype in IT," she said. "Diversity is essential; an organization gets a very narrow focus if all its employees come from the same background."
Far from the commonly held image of IT, job candidates often have more education than specific roles require, Coulter said, and the core competencies required in most IT roles today include traditionally 'female' characteristics, such as communication skills in IT support roles.
And while the traditional computer science and engineering degrees still have their place in the industry, Coulter noted an increase in roles for people skilled in other areas, such as subject matter experts, business managers, and accountants.
"I believe that today, it's very much about hiring the person and not the skills, which is a change from the '80s and '90s, when recruitment was largely based on technical skills," she said.
The industry demand for what Coulter termed "versatilists" with business minds and a good range of soft skills is forecasted to escalate up by the end of the decade, when 60 percent of all IT workers are likely to be employed in business roles, according to Gartner analysts.
By 2010, Gartner estimates that thirty percent of the top IT professionals will migrate to IT vendors while service providers will maintain technologist and specialist roles.