Westminster View: What is the ICT sector doing to improve the proportion of women it employs?

Today is International Women’s Day and I am proud to be opening the Trailblazers exhibition in the Discovery museum in Newcastle, celebrating the contribution of women to science and technology over the past 250 years. It features 24 portraits of trailblazing women including the pioneering naval architect Rachel Parsons and Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin who deciphered the structure of insulin.

It’s important to celebrate women who have worked in ICT - and to make sure that the sector becomes more representative of the 51% of the population who have the X chromosome only. Right now women make up only 12% of professional engineers and 15% of those applying for computer science degrees.

I’m keen to change that. Having worked as a professional engineer in Telecoms myself for 23 years I know just how much can be done by industry to encourage and support women in ICT. I was lucky enough to often have great male bosses who were determined that the almost all male working environment should not be a barrier to a successful career.

Last year I wrote to ten of the leading companies in the engineering and technology sector to ask them what they were doing to improve the situation: BAEsystems, Google, Microsoft, ARM, Rolls Royce, BP, Shell, Ford and Jaguar Landrover.

The responses are summarised here. What was quite amusing was that two of the companies addressed their response to ‘Mr Onwurah’.  I shan’t name them but it did make me wonder how accustomed they were to female engagement.

Nearly every company claimed (naturally) that it was hiring above the national average in terms of the proportion of female engineers/scientists or IT professionals.  The exception was ARM, which did not make the point and candidly added that the proportion was higher in its divisions outside the UK, especially India.

It’s worth noting that in India the female literacy rate is just 65% as against 82% for men so the fact that they are doing better than we are on gender balance is striking.

Also striking was the fact that the two companies that refused to release any numbers were Google and Microsoft.  Both are in IT, and are relatively young when compared to the likes of Shell, BP, Ford and Rolls-Royce.

Google and Microsoft both cited  confidentiality as the reason for refusing to share the data. That suggests that either  Google and Microsoft do not know how to aggregate and anonymise such information in which case one might be legitimately concerned about their involvement in Big Data, or alternatively that they have so few women employees it is impossible to anonymise the data. That would raise a different set of concerns!

So it was the more traditional companies who were more open in releasing figures, with Ford giving the most detailed breakdown across different job types.

Most firms hinted that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in engineering and sciences and all the firms indicated that getting more women in these fields was a corporate priority.  Most have outlined steps taken to redress this, from overhauling corporate procedures (e.g. making sure women are on interview panels) to intervening early in schools to steer girls towards STEM subjects and careers.

Most companies recognise the importance of female role-models in encouraging female graduates or apprentices to join them, and detailed the steps taken to develop networking forums or in pushing high-potential female employees up the hierarchy.

ARM was the most forthright in answering the question about what private or public initiatives firms have found useful in this area.  It said that “most initiatives that directly address the issue are clearly failing at a national level and make little difference”.

According to the ARM representative, the most effective means would be role models and TV commentators or presenters who make the subjects seem sexy and exciting. I tend to agree. A high profile TV series on women engineers would probably change perceptions overnight.

Overall I was reassured that many companies are taking steps to address the gender imbalance. I am worried that Microsoft and Google, role models in their own right, do not appear to want to let anyone know how well, or badly, they are doing. The challenge is in seeing real change in the medium and longer term. With technology playing an increasing part in all of our lives, we cannot continue to fish in a single gender pool when it comes to the skills we need. The great technology challenges we face, from climate change to the internet of things need all our talents and imagination

Chi Onwurah is MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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