Encouraging women in ICT careers

Why are there so few women in technology roles?

They lifted their wine glasses from the cinema bar and raised them to the air. 'What elegant women,' I thought. 'The gaming development industry isn't the male-dominated, hoodie-wearing stereotype any longer.' I was waiting for the start of Indie Games: The Movie, which screened on the evening before the New Zealand Game Developers Conference in Auckland.

Then the bartender jumped up onto the bar and said that everyone waiting to see the Iranian domestic drama should make their way into the cinema as it was about to start -- and the wine drinkers wandered off.

The next day at the conference the male to female ratio was maybe 90/10. And while some of the women I spoke to held senior positions in the game development industry, you couldn't help notice that game development, like so much of telecommunications and IT, is male-dominated.

I'm not talking about the marketing and PR and finance departments, plenty of women there; I'm talking about the actual hands-on making stuff bit -- the developers, architects, and engineers.

Later in the week, at the IPv6 event hosted by Computerworld, one of the IT managers present brought up the lack of women in the room (we counted about 5 female attendees out of a total of around 60). "Why don't young women want careers in technology," he asked me. He told me that he once asked a waitress at an ICT event why she was in hospitality, earning minimum wage, when she could be embarking on an IT career, and she replied that hospitality was more glamorous.

So is it really just a PR problem? Do girls at school think that ICT is dull and boring?

Vodafone CTO Sandra Pickering made a similar comment to me during the interview for the article on why the company is creating 100 new IT roles. "We need to be encouraging young women to be thinking about IT careers and it's not all about geeks and gadgets and widgets. There are jobs and careers in IT that make use of a whole range of skills."

Pickering holds one of the top IT jobs in the country -- she's responsible for Vodafone's network and its IT -- and she's determined to make sure that she isn't the last woman to hold that role.

Pickering talks about building a pipeline -- you have to get young women in at the start of their careers and then ensure that they retain their career-path after they have had children.

Because actually, that is also the tough part for professional women.

How do you keep up in the fast moving area that is technology while at the same time bringing up a family? Yes there are plenty of men out there who are fabulous fathers and many who have taken over the primary care giving role, but the main responsibility for childcare -- especially looking after the under-fives -- still rests mainly with women.

Everyone's domestic arrangements are their own business, but let's be honest about one of the reasons why women are not equally represented in top executive positions -- and why they don't feature prominently in ICT. It can be really hard balancing motherhood and a career.

So, should we just wring our hands and say 'that is the way of the world?' No, we should look to find solutions because more women in ICT makes it better. Men and women have different viewpoints, different experiences. As technology becomes entrenched in our everyday lives, it can no longer be machine-centric, it has to be user-centric. Therefore, we need both gender perspectives to create applications and services that benefit everyone in society.

I suspect part of the solution to increasing female representation in ICT remains with women who already have technology roles. Women such as Pickering, who are determined to address the gender imbalance, not only in their own companies but throughout the community by visiting high schools and evangelising about ICT careers.

"In New Zealand girls aged 14-16 don't typically think about IT or technology careers when they are that age," says Pickering.

"Maybe the influence we can have in the industry is trying to get girls to think a bit differently so they do see technology as an option."

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