Analysis: Women in IT still hit glass ceiling

News 19 Feb, 2009

Despite a positive outlook on their careers, the latest research has shown the glass ceiling for women in IT has not yet broken.

Much has been spoken and written about the role of gender in the ongoing IT skills gap. And on first impressions, a recent survey has revealed women in IT are, on the whole, positive about their careers.

In fact, the survey carried out by the career development and networking portal womenintechnology.co.uk found the pace of change, opportunity and working with cutting edge technology emerged as the top three most positive aspects for women working in IT.

One respondent said: “I like being at the forefront of new development and feeling like I’m making a difference that affects many people.” Another commented: “I get to influence technology focused individuals who may not consider the softer or more creative side of the process.”

Out of the 167 women questioned, one even pointed to the quirkier advantage of “empty ladies’ toilets at technical conferences.”

Glass ceiling

At the same time, there are also signs that a glass ceiling remains in place for women looking to climb the career ladder. Nearly two thirds (58 per cent) believed that being women made it harder to succeed in an IT career. And 55 per cent believed they did not earn as much as their male colleagues in similar roles.

Indeed, anecdotal responses suggested that women are held to much higher standards than their male counterparts. One respondent suggested: “What would be ‘fabulous’ skills in a man seemed to be considered as ‘only to be expected, nothing special’ in a woman.”

This pressure to overachieve also extended into women’s work-life balance, where around a third said they would be put off taking a career break or maternity leave.

These viewpoints are nothing new, and echo the findings of Intellect’s third annual Perceptions of Equal Pay Survey, published in November 2008. It also found the majority of women in the IT industry did not feel as though they are not getting the same pay as their male counterparts.

A report published only earlier this month by the National Skills Forum (NSF) called on industry to find new ways of encouraging young women into science, engineering and IT roles to fill the ever-present UK IT skills gap.

Suw Charman-Anderson, former executive director of the Open Rights Group and social software consultant, told IT PRO that the problems highlighted by the research were well known.

“As I’ve got more involved in the technology scene, it has been striking how few women present at technical conferences and how few women in IT are high profile,” she said.

Another survey, commissioned last spring by Research in Motion (RIM), the creator of the BlackBerry Women and Technology Awards, backed Charman-Anderson’s observation.

While most girls aged 11-16 thought technology was cool, the RIM research suggested just 28 per cent had thought about IT-related careers, compared to 52 per cent of boys.

Time for some role models

Despite the fact that the former head of the British Computer Society (BCS), Wendy Hall CBE, was honoured in this New Year’s Honours List in recognition for her contribution to the IT industry, there are still few female IT role models.

Charman-Anderson added: “I’m not advocating positive discrimination, I just think we need to make people more aware of the positive female role models already out there and raise their profiles.”

As result, she is establishing Ada Lovelace Day on 24 March 2009 as an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

Recent research by psychologist Penelope Lockwood discovered that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones, explained Charman-Anderson. “If women need female role models, I though it would be a good idea for women to come together to highlight the women in technology that we look up to,” she said.

“Let’s create new role models and make sure that whenever the question ‘who are the leading women in tech?’ is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues.”

Maggie Berry, director of womenintechnology.co.uk agreed: “It’s a challenge that won’t be resolved overnight, however the work we do and the events we hold both aim to arm women with the skills and knowledge they need to help overcome some of these problems and hopefully chip away at that glass ceiling.”

Click here to read why women might be turned off working in tech.