Women have long been under-represented in the IT industry, especially in senior roles. Is it time to accept that females lack interest in the field, or is lack of support and enduring stereotypes keeping women away? We look at the current state of play in Australia, and find out what the future may hold.

In March of 2000, the Australian Government published a report on the under-representation of women in IT careers. The report, -Women in IT – What are the barriers?” concluded that misconceptions of the industry, the enduring ‘geek’ image and a perceived lack of advancement opportunities were chief culprits in women’s reluctance to enter the field.

Five years on, little progress has been made. Have the initiatives implemented since 2000 been inadequate, misdirected, under-funded, or are women simply not interested in information technology?

Research done by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), shows that women make up about 20 percent of the ICT workforce. While this level of participation is low enough to warrant investigation, of further concern is the very low proportion of females in higher-level positions. With a lack of visible, high-profile females and the level of women enrolled in tertiary IT study remaining steady – or in some cases, declining – there is a need to re-think the current strategies for getting girls interested in IT.

According to Su Spencer, Program Director of the recently-established ACS Women board, efforts to increase female involvement in IT have been focused in the wrong direction. -The focus has always been on what it is about women that stops them from coming into the industry, rather than what it is about the industry that doesn’t attract women”, she says.

One of the enduring problems in the under-representation of females in IT is the reciprocal relationship between the image women have of the industry and the reality of working in it. Women who decide to follow a technology career may get to the workplace and find a lack of senior females and a preponderance of young men who work family-unfriendly hours. Discouraged to find that rumours of a boys’ club may have been true, such women bail out of the industry, thereby perpetuating the dearth of female role models in IT.

With a need for more role models and a lack of women willing to step up, how can IT achieve a more balanced gender ratio? We’ll take a look at the current issues and see how individuals and groups hope to forge a way forward.

Dot-com damage and a doubtful future
When looking at women’s reluctance to jump on the IT bandwagon, it is important to consider the global issues affecting the IT industry over the last five years. Mere months after the government report was released, the infamous dot-com crash transformed the image of IT from a halcyon land of fortune to a layoff-loaded wasteland. According to Spencer, the sudden infiltration of job insecurity and uncertainty had a counteractive effect. -As the reports of the skills shortage dried up and the dot-com crashes came through, you had that negative publicity acting against the initiatives that had been started [to recruit more women]”, she says.

In the years following the dot-com crash, the image of the industry has also been tainted by the offshoring and outsourcing trends, which contributed to the notion that IT is a path to an unstable career. Women have been reluctant to enter an industry that appears fraught with vulnerability, especially if they have plans to start a family.

A drive to recruit more women in the early 2000s as part of the general skills shortage panic did not have significant effects on the gender ratio, says Spencer. -When the skills shortage dried up, a lot of the interest in the participation of women dried up as well”.

The geek stereotype
When asked what an IT employee does, many girls will conjure images of socially inept programmers who spend their work days alone inside, cast in the lonely glow of a computer monitor. Such stereotypes, perpetuated by the geeks in glasses and high pants who inhabit popular culture, tend to overshadow the fact that an IT career often involves teamwork, communication and creativity.

Kim Roy, Operations Manager for the Women in Technology (WIT) association, says that many females continue to have a narrow view of what a career in IT actually involves. -The biggest issue is that women do not understand the variety of options available to them”, she says. -They still think that IT means software programming and hardware maintenance.”

This misconception needs to be remedied, according to Didar Zowghi, an Associate Professor in Software Engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney. -It is so important to recruit more women in IT in order to create a sense of balance and to bring the more human side of computing and IT into focus”.

The confusion over what a career in technology actually involves is such that some women will actually progress through school, university and the initial stages of their career before realising that the real world of IT is markedly more expansive than public perception. Phylina Zhang, a lead software developer for Customware Asia Pacific, remembers being surprised by the variety that IT has to offer. -When I started, I thought IT was mainly about programming”, she says. -But after working in a real IT setting for a while, I realised there is a lot more to it than that, even if you are a developer”.

The irony is that more females would be entering the field if they were aware of what IT careers actually involve. Even the oft-cited argument that women’s minds are more suited to creative pursuits than mathematical ones shouldn’t prevent females from excelling in IT.

-Computing can be quite mathematical and the ability to think logically is essential, but the amount of numbers you have to deal with really depends on the direction you want your career to take”, says Victoria Vitaver, a recent graduate of Software Engineering at UNSW. -Designing a ‘user friendly’ system has about as much maths in it as there are dodos in this world.” Zhang agrees: -IT marketing, business analysis, etc are all creative fields in IT which females will find interesting and will be good at.”

Dissent in the ranks
Planning future strategies to attract more women is difficult when there is disagreement among females in IT on how they want to be perceived in their field. When HP CEO Carly Fiorina was asked to step down in February of this year, talk inevitably turned to her gender, and the bearing it had – negative or otherwise — on her image and career. During her time as the head of HP, Fiorina repeatedly refused to discuss women’s issues or speak about her status as one of the tiny two percent of female Fortune 500 CEOs. Fiorina’s belief in gender irrelevance and being judged on merit alone may seem like a glass ceiling-smashing ideology, but it’s not one that Pia Waugh, Vice-President of Linux Australia, agrees with. -We have a point in history at the moment where there’s a problem, and ignoring the problem doesn’t help fix it”, she says. -Until we actually even up the balance a little bit, then I think it needs to be brought out and spoken about in an open forum”.

While many resent being treated as -one of the boys”, others are keen to divert attention away from their gender in an industry where femininity can be seen as a weakness. -The terms ‘feminine’ and ‘strong’ are seen as an oxymoron; they’re seen as mutually exclusive”, says Waugh. -When a woman is being strong, she’s supposedly being male”.

The retention of female employees is another contentious issue; as Roy says, -getting women in is one thing, getting them to stay is an entirely different matter”. Women who take leave for family reasons may never return, due to the difficulties of working long hours and having fallen behind with regard to ever-evolving technology. -The technical side of IT is continuously and rapidly changing. I’m doing fine in keeping up with it now, but what if I got married and had kids?”

The ACS’ March Work/Life policy, which addressed such concerns with recommendations of job sharing, paid parental leave and flexible working hours, received a less than enthusiastic response from IT minister Helen Coonan, highlighting the difficulty of a non-government body trying to create and enforce social policies.

The way forward
In the next five years, Spencer would like to see a greater emphasis on workplace policy development and an understanding that equal opportunity is an ethical issue.

-People in governments do want to see changes taking place. The difficulty is finding enough women who can spend enough time to actually work in the area, and keeping some sort of consistent effort going. We’ve been doing lots of research, and probably not very much at the moment about action.”

Several initiatives are in place to support and further women in the industry, including WIT’s mentoring and board-readiness schemes, and regular social events organised by the Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications (FITT) network. In addition to efforts by non-profit organisations, the federal government is also contributing with initiatives such as the upcoming Women in ICT Summit. Spencer sees the event as a step in the right direction, so long as it is appropriately focused: -It’s going to be really important for that summit to address actions for the future rather than simply researching the reasons of the past.”

Technology itself may also be able to make a positive impact on the conditions for women in the IT workforce. For Zowghi, the opportunity to work from home via remote access and the internet was a major drawcard in her decision to remain in the industry: -I wanted to bring up my kids myself rather than sending them to child care and a career in IT gave me that flexibility”.

The open source movement, in which developers are judged solely on the quality of their code, also presents opportunities for women to achieve recognition for their work. Waugh has found the open source environment to be refreshingly non-subjective, with its emphasis on collaboration and receptiveness, regardless of gender, race, culture or age. -When you’re online, you can be anyone”, she says. -There is a natural acceptance which is enforced, because if you’re working with someone, you have to be aware that they could be from any background.”

The message that many women in the technology sector want to get across is that IT offers a wealth of opportunities for women beyond the coding and programming roles that most people tend to associate with. -If you think of it in terms of the use of IT within the community, you have this whole diverse range of things that you can participate in”, says Spencer. Roy agrees: -It can take you anywhere. If you have a passion for design, fashion, construction, medicine, finance it doesn’t really matter as they all rely on some form of technology”.