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IT careers for women – Exclusive e-skills NTO interview

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Why do so few women pursue a career in IT, and what can we do about this? The E-Skills NTO has recognised this problem, and has set up a project to deal with it. In this exclusive interview, Anne Cantelo, Director on the NTO's Women in IT project talked to TrainingZONE about why we need more women in IT and how we can move forward.

Why do you think so few women work in IT, and what do you think needs to be done? Add your own comments below.


TrainingZONE: Why are there so few women in IT?

Anne Cantelo: This was the point that we started from. We already knew that the numbers were low, so we didn't need quantitative research, and we had the MORI work done and found that the answer was image: IT just doesn't have an appealing image to girls. Up to the age of 11 girls and boys are equally involved in technology, girls start turning off at 11, and this reaction is completely entrenched by 13. We found two sides to this. One is that drama and the media in general tend to show anyone in IT as a nerdy and geeky man, with a ponytail. The other is the image of IT in school, it isn't exciting. IT teaching doesn't keep up with entertainment technology, so girls aren't shown the connections between the things they enjoy and the technical side. For instance we've found they often don't associate mobile phones with technology. After that age not many girls are brought back to IT. And we find that they don't know that they can get back into it, for instance many undergraduates don't realise that they can make a career in IT without an IT degree.

TrainingZONE: Is the problem right through the profession, and right across levels of IT?

Anne Cantelo: It is a long term problem, and it has been getting worse. Seven years ago about 30% of the people working in IT were women, now it's about 20%, though some estimates are even lower. And even those, you find, often work in HR or marketing sections of IT companies. And it's important for other reasons as well as equality and meeting skills shortages. It has been shown that men and women interact differently with technology, and if our technology is designed almost entirely by men it won't be adapted to half of the population. So it's an issue about being competitive and customer-led too.

TrainingZONE: What's the history of your initiative?

Anne Cantelo It started a year and a half ago, with a report headed by Alan Stevens, and then the Image project got employers together and involved them. This has been the real change: many employers were recognising the problem individually, but were not able to do very much about it on their own. They have been very glad to find an initiative to get involved in. Together they are having a much more powerful effect, they are offering hundreds and in some cases thousands of employees to take part. And that all started with the Charter, and the commitments in that. [The charter includes commitments to address the poor image of IT, to broaden broadening recruitment into the industry to include groups such as women, career-changers and mature workers, and to increase the provision of work experience placements within an organisation.]

TrainingZONE: How are you making a difference?

Anne Cantelo: We are putting several projects into action. The Computer Clubs will introduce leading edge, exciting software with easy-to-use training programmes, and get girls to use it. We've identified what girls of that age find exciting and giving them software to use that relating to that. So with image software we can show them how to put pictures of themselves into a magazine, and in some cases this will actually happen, magazines are co-operating and will use the best of the pieces the girls produce. And we'll be training them on software that, for instance, lets them put images of themselves into games. A number of companies who cater to the youth entertainment market are getting involved, I can't name them yet but you can probably work it out! In fact no one has refused us yet. So girls will get the chance to compete to redesign their favourite band's website, for instance. Basically they will be learning professional application in a fun way, and providers like Macromedia Flash have offered their products for use there, so the major players are involved, and real professional skills are on offer. We will also be showing girls role models for careers in IT. And we have been talking to the media as well, about the portrayal of people who work in IT. And we have the Compass website.

TrainingZONE: Are there other challenges to meet concerning adult women and IT?

Anne Cantelo: It's more difficult but we are working on that now. We are arranging for companies to offer women work experience to get them started. There are other problems to be considered as well. More women than men take a couple of years out from their careers to have children, and in IT that can leave you behind, as it's more crucial in IT than in other areas to keep up with developments. So we will be looking for more solutions. The IT Compass website has a part to play too. It has information on opportunities, getting into IT and what employers expect. Its main sections are Women in IT, Work experience and IT for non-IT graduates, so its an important resource in this area. The Women in IT section has video interviews with high profile women role models working in IT. There are role models from all stages of a career. And there are answers to frequently asked questions about the routes women can take into the industry.

TrainingZONE: The "Women in IT" 2002 conference ran in January, showcasing some of the programmes aimed at reversing the serious under-representation of women in IT and other high tech jobs. How did it go?

Anne Cantelo: I was amazed by how exciting it was, it was crammed. Often these things involve looking at depressing statistics and discussing how difficult things are, but the great thing about this event was that it was concentrated on real action. The Macromedia participation was announced there, as was the participation of other companies in our practical programmes. And we had the announcement that 23 more companies were signing up to the Charter too.

TrainingZONE: What do you have planned in the coming months?

Anne Cantelo: The Computer Clubs will be rolled out in SEEDA (South East England Development Agency region), and hopefully also over the rest of the country. And we will be pushing on with the work experience opportunities, with the charter, and with the employer Champions Group to keep up the momentum.

TrainingZONE: Does you have any specific targets for this initiative?

Anne Cantelo: I haven't set myself a figure for the immediate future, but why shouldn't half of the women working in IT be women? Girls do better at maths at school, so why not?


What do you think needs to be done to encourage more women into IT careers? Add your comments below.

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