28 June 2021

Seven years on, what has changed for women in IT?

One of the very first blogs (published in May 2014) that appeared on our (first) website was on the subject of the lack of women in IT. It was in two parts, which have been edited together and reproduced below. Please read it then ask yourself this one simple question – what, if anything, has changed since it was written…?

Why we need more women to make great IT engineers

In 1967 Ford didn’t have any female engineers. But 25-year-old Damyanti Gupta had migrated to Detroit to change that. When she was told “we don’t have any women on staff”, she retorted, “if you don’t hire me, then you won’t have that benefit.” She was hired a few weeks later and stayed with Ford until she retired, some 35 years later. However, although she is a great inspiration, sometimes it seems we’re still stuck in the 1960s.

To illustrate the point, we were really taken by a recent article on TechCrunch which explained how Michelle Nguyen, a school student in San Francisco, wanted to be an engineer. Her school didn’t offer a computer science course and she felt that she “had to be a guy to be an engineer”, but she didn’t just throw in the towel. Instead, she read, learned and discovered a local course that would teach her computer science.

Teodora Caneva, another female student, was put off by the participants studying computer science course at her school because they were “all boys.” Fortunately, her teacher knew of the same course that Michelle had discovered and persuaded her to apply.

Another girl, Susan Tham, whose school did offer a computer science course, was one of only 4 girls in a class of 30. Sadly, the three other girls felt too intimidated and gave up the course. So Susan, like Michelle and Teodora, enrolled on this local course, run by payments company Square. Entitled High School Code Camp, this is a 9-month programme where students from local San Francisco high schools learn how to program in Java. And the upshot of all this is that all three girls will be studying computer science at universities in San Francisco this coming autumn.

Although this seems like three success stories (which it is), in reality it’s three young people who have had to make a massive effort to stand out from the crowd on account of their gender. Many, probably most, of their female contemporaries were/are intimidated by the ‘only boys become engineers’ culture, even in a relatively progressive state like California. In the UK things are, arguably, worse …

Sadly, and despite lots of good work by WES (Women’s Engineering Society) and others, there are many statistics showing the problems we have in the UK. The two that stick out for us are: the review for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in November 2013 that suggests that only 8% of Britain’s engineers are women, and, secondly, the fact that 50% of the UK’s state schools do not have a single girl studying Physics at A Level. There seems to be a circular and cumulative downward spiral at work, with fewer girls studying relevant (computer) science subjects making it seem to other female students that there is no point in joining those who have gone down this path.

We all know the problem exists, but what to do about it? There are a lot of people trying very hard to turn things around, but they need support, from recruiters like us and from the clients with whom we work. Above all, we need as much positive PR as possible – even blog articles like this.

The recent (April 2014) story that BT is to recruit 1600 new engineers for its fibre deployment across the country is, on the face of it, very good news. BT, being smart, got huge PR from the announcement, especially as they also said many of these ‘new’ recruits are expected to come from those leaving the armed forces as a result of the Strategic Defence Initiative, and that they also wanted specifically to increase the number of women engineers they employ. However, it’s telling that the report in TechWeek Europe noted, “many of (BT’s) new recruits (are) expected to be former members of the armed forces and, hopefully, women” (our italics).

Two things here. First, the PR means that BT will attract loads of candidates from the military (albeit this, obviously, doesn’t increase the total numbers employed in engineering but just moves them from one sector to another). Secondly, it should make more women want to apply for these jobs and, hopefully (that word again), encourage even more girls and younger women to want to develop careers in IT and engineering. Because, to go back to those figures about the paucity of female engineers, and the official figures that tell us that the UK alone needs 87,000 new engineers per year over the next ten years, it is no exaggeration to say that if we don’t encourage more women to become engineers we’re simply not going to be able to sustain the economic recovery that’s currently underway. The story above, of the school computer science class of 30 with only four girls, only one of whom stayed the course, shows that we really have a lot to do – and quickly!

Well, have things happened quickly? Has much changed? In 2017, Be-IT commissioned a report, looking into the issue of sexism in IT. Its findings made the pages of the Sunday Times. In the next few days, I’ll detail exactly what they were and explain in a bit more detail about how we aim to update this research over the next few months and expand it to include not just the problems around an overly male-led industry but also some of the thorny diversity and inclusion issues which are, for better or worse, dominating much of today’s discourse.

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT Projects, Be-IT Resourcing

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