The IT industry needs to look at what is helping to encourage more women into IT – and what is not – to find a new way of inspiring the next generation, according to the president of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.
Liz Bacon, deputy pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Greenwich, spoke to Computer Weekly about her own experiences as a woman in IT and her latest mission as president of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.
Bacon recently established a network of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) to encourage more females to consider careers in such fields.
With women accounting for just 16% of the UK IT workforce – a number steadily on the decline – the network aims to bring together senior women to share best practices and find a new way of inspiring the next generation of women.
“Now, as my presidency ends, this network is part of my mission. We have about 20 members at the moment, and that number is growing,” she said.
“The challenge is that we have lots of computing initiatives but the number of women is declining. What we’re doing is obviously not working, so we need to look at why. The aim of the network is to share best practices, gather data, find roles models and find out how we can help,” said Bacon.
The network will also focus on supporting existing approaches, such as offering mentoring and work shadowing schemes, acting as role models, publicising success and encouraging good practice, such as supporting women returning to work by offering training and flexible working patterns.
Why are women overlooking careers in IT?
Bacon said there are a number of reasons why the number of females in the industry is declining – it's just a case of identifying them.
“It is the language we’re using? Is it social or cultural? We need to go into schools and find out what their perceptions are. It can be subtle, and it’s not just one thing. Until we work that out we can’t change it,” she said.
The network is seeking senior females to come forward as role models. “A lot of role models in the industry almost demonstrate brilliance. We need people at all stages of their careers so everyone can see their next step,” said Bacon.
Despite spending the majority of her career in academia, Bacon said she was just about done with education at 18, before a careers teacher encouraged her to apply for higher education. She drifted into the field of IT, as she had previously been interested in the sciences.
Bacon said her heart has always been in science, but a physics teacher deterred her from studying in this area: “A physics teacher once said to me that there’s no point in teaching women physics as they only run off and have babies. It put me off at the time, but I’ve always wondered what I'd have done if I’d just rebelled and taken it anyway.
“I went to university in the early 1980s, when there were still quite a few women taking computer science. It was not as competitive then, but the number of women has been slowly decreasing over the years.”
Support for women returning to tech industry
Bacon said one of the reasons the number of females in the industry remains low is the issue of returning to work after a break, such as maternity leave, and being behind on technical knowledge.
Some companies are not willing to retrain returners, she said. “I saw a presentation from a woman who was trying to get back into the industry, but her knowledge of Java wasn’t up to date and the company she was trying to join wasn’t willing to train her, but instead looked abroad.”
Bacon said careers advice is “very patchy” across the UK, especially in schools. “The issue also lies with teachers, as many have only ever focused on teaching how to use computers instead of what is under the bonnet. It’s hard to give advice on a subject you don’t know much about.
“We’re currently undergoing a national experiment in training computer teachers. It will be interesting to see the results of this.”
Bacon is also a past chair of both the BCS Academy of Computing and the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC) national committee.
She has previously worked with e-skills UK, the Science Council, Parliamentary IT Committee (Pitcom) and the European Quality Assurance Network for Informatics Education (Eqanie).