The Response to the BCS open discussion on the decline of Women in IT

Response to the BCS open discussion on the decline of women in Information Technology

Tomorrow’s Women – Tomorrow’s World

While this document covers issues raised at the above meeting, more importantly it brings to light major issues regarding this situation and initial thoughts, guide and a plan to move forward effectively to rectify this situation and others presently existing in the recruitment to the IT industry of the United Kingdom today.

The People
At the above open discussion various issues were brought to light to the general audience/participants. Presiding over the meeting was Dr. Sue Black of Westminster University and the four panellists were:
Prof. Rob Macredie, Maggie Philbin, Mohan Koo and Rebecca George OBE
Throughout the BCS meeting there was much talk of ‘initiatives’ and statistics. Well forgive my bluntness but the statistics do not and can not hold true as British IT and Comms workers are employed globally and a high percentage are contractors, not permanent staff.
Initiatives are like the word ‘motion’, they go a given, or set distance and stop – that isn’t the right terminology if you’re trying to create the right mindset and ethos, its actually going against what you’re trying to achieve.

The Problem
In recent years it has become apparent that there are fewer women working in Information Technology, I don’t know if this is the same for all technology fields.
Without statistics to hand, I would like to take time here to have a look back over recent years and bring some of what I believe are basic points to air about the why’s and how’s this may have happened and also to offer a realistic method over time to restore the places of women into the general IT environment.
For years after the conclusion of WW2, with the lack of physical manpower women were generally guided to more intellectual and technical careers. Men for the most part were required for the more laborious tasks of helping to physically rebuild the nation and her infrastructure.
The War made huge and vast changes to women’s roles, not only in the UK but right across the world.
Throughout the 70’s until the present, the decline of women in technology has been evident. This isn’t just because there are generally more men in the technology fields; the actual numbers of women in this work place has dropped.

1 Social
Since the late 90’s the UK and much of Europe has been drawn into a culture of consumerism. Indeed, where once just keeping a home clean, tidy and having fresh clothes was a full time job for a housewife/husband, modern technology has slashed this time to a bare minimum.
We now have in our arsenal just about every conceivable modern appliance to make personal domestic living simple; the hardest work is actually taking things in and out of machines and changing the bed.
With new found free time, internet shopping at our finger tips, not only have we become highly accustomed to our new world, but in many cases we have lost the ability to run and operate an ‘analogue’ life style at all.
We expect things to simply work and only change it when there is an upgraded version available. We rarely fix anything anymore.
Yet, all this new living comes from the IT world. We can’t have any of it without the telecommunication infrastructure, the computers, the networking protocols, security, the software, the banking, the lawyers and ultimately the end user!
So then, why are people so reluctant to become involved?
Well for the most part when people look at their computers they read things like ‘Taiwan’ and other names – an industry and technology from a far off land that has no bearing on our lives…
People don’t realise that until more recent times, things as simple as the humble LED was made only in the UK, then exported globally.
Software: straight away most people think of the big American players, not the smaller bespoke software companies that make everything work on a day to day level. Even if you mention databases, while people might rightly think about Microsoft’s Access – few know that it was designed, written and sold via licensing from a small group of people here in the UK in Cambridge.
So here is the basic, yet greatest issue – we have no real idea of the sheer number of different jobs and roles within the greater industry. As such we can not actually gauge how many people work in our field.
Recently I heard someone state that UK has a real lack of IT engineers…
So as an example, let’s have a look here;
Engineers:
Heavy Underground Cable Engineer
Satellite Communications Engineer
Pole Erection Engineer
Fibre Optic Engineering
Installation Engineering
Planning Engineer
System Design Engineer
Data Cabling Engineer
DWDM Engineer
EPOS Engineer
Security Engineer
Ok, I have to stop because I have jotted down over 50 types of engineer and simply don’t have the will to type them.
The UK has more trained engineers in these fields per capita than any other country on Earth! So good are we at our physical engineering fields that there are few major Telecom or IT projects in the world where you will not find Brits planning, designing, project managing and installing some of the most cutting edge systems. Yet ironically most of the equipment comes from the US and Canada.
And in this we see our problem – we simply don’t know what is and isn’t IT any more – personally I would say Telecoms and IT are now the same and many of the above roles allow cross technology working.  Yet while people try to use newer acronyms like ICT, it’s all the same thing, no matter how many acronyms anyone wants to make up. However I would then suggest Software is a field slightly set aside insomuch as it is the interactive environment rather than the physical.
I haven’t even started with power supply, industrial scale cooling and data centre design.
So we need an industry Bible of ALL related jobs! You see, how can we expect a teenager in school to show an interest beyond that of basic home computing unless they know of what type of jobs and fields are out there?
Many don’t require degree educations, simply trade based learning, yet without a guide, how will they know the positions even exist.
One question here is this – who would write and fund the writing of such a document?
However, what I can say is that there are more than enough roles for people within these industries irrespective of their skill levels.
Ok, we are now aware that here are thousands of different roles, we can also add the fact there are different industrial fields also, like Defence and Health that change all existing roles in to more bespoke market requirements.
Yet this alone has caused trouble:
In 2008 I went for a walk around a major hospital as part of them wishing to recruit Design Engineers and IT Project Managers.
I knew the hospital, I had actually cabled it for British Telecom many years previously.
The remit was very simple; they needed a decent network built from scratch and a Wifi/Wimax solution on the back of it. I asked about their Disaster Recovery requirement and this is when I realised that there was little mandate for anything beyond the network at all.
The one thing that was a requirement was that the person recruited must have extensive NHS experience…
I openly laughed, and said, what you need is the private sector know-how, and then put a health based software solution over the top of it.
So what is going on?
Statistics showing a down turn in females within the industry!
A complete lack of available information regarding actual roles!
Organisations/Industries that believe they can re-write commercial IT know-how themselves?
The entertainment media has much to answer for with the lowering numbers of women in IT and the clichéd depictions of Nerds and Geeks are too old to use, but they still do it. But when Grand and Great Grand Parents are fully computer literate – it’s fair to say we have moved on a great deal from just 10 years ago.
I have a huge and varied employment history, Soldier, Electrician, IT/Telecommunication contractor and project manager since 1987. I also have a Class 1 HGV and was a Land Rover Instructor.
I can apply myself to various environments and cultures with ease and this (as it turned out) has been vital when working as a contractor in the Comms/IT field around the world, including the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
While there is no training for the environments I’ve had to work, the people I talk to on my blog, twitter and other places are (irrespective of their trades) formidably experienced End Users. These people rarely understand the level of their own skills, they have no idea that their knowledge is more than enough to move into the IT world and this is a dire shame. Skill diversity is such an asset.

2 Education
We need to look at the long term and this immediately takes us to the format of Secondary Education in the UK.
There are some things even when I was at school I never understood.
Why did I have to learn French for 3 years?
I did Woodwork; I made tables, lamps and even a flintlock pistol.
So why could I not hang a door when I spent years doing this subject? A stud wall maybe, or put up some shelves? Or what about wire a plug?
No, years were wasted when I, like the rest of us could have been taught something effective and useful on the back of core subjects. These could have been used the moment I left school – but more over, they would have given us insights into different trades.
I was lead to believe that you’re secondary education was a two edged sword,
1. To prepare you for the basics of a working life and/or vocational college.
2. To guide you towards Universities and higher education for more formal professional trades.
Yet it is my generation and the generations either side of my own that have dragged the technology to where we are today. Just think what could have been achieved if we had been given industry training, sadly though the science and technology didn’t actually exist back then.
Of course the emphasis of all this has changed in present times with the general push towards greater levels of academia.
But what about that 3 years of French?
What if that had been swapped out for a MCSE, CCNA or CCNP qualification? What if, we had compulsory subjects like the A+ (the most underrated IT qualification of all – yet most vital and one of harder ones).
So when students get to the point of choosing their final subjects – they would already be qualified IT networking people. They would already know how much of it they enjoyed and they’ll know that there could be a real future in learning more.
The present system is not only wrong, but ill thought out and actually shameful. It tells a possible future employer nothing, a GCSE is not a tangible thing, and it does not show that the person truly had to understand anything in a real world sense. But an industry rated qualification does. It tells them that the pupil must have attained a good understanding of the subject matter and had real hands on skill if they covered the A+ or data cabling subjects.
Further to this – we will have raised the overall standard of IT engineers by simply and drastically lowering the age of when they qualify, because this isn’t rocket science, it’s knowledge of our present technology. It also gives a working knowledge and starting point to the basics of how technologies will operate in our lives in the future. But mainly – it offers a conceivable choice when it comes around to selecting subjects towards exams.
Without the previously mentioned Industry Bible – what chance has any school student got of even conceiving what is available to them or the base skills they require?
But here’s the kicker…
Women are generally better at IT than their male counterparts!
That’s right, and for the most part it’s true, why? Well it is historically known that women are far better at multi-tasking than men!
Also it’s known that when women are educated separately from men, they learn faster, better and more effectively and that while controversial this could be worth looking at within the realms of this kind of course.

3 Future & Commercial
In today’s hard nosed business and commercial IT world, companies strive to get the best they can for their money.
While I believe there should be a guide to how much any job is worth in remuneration (irrespective of location), at the end of the day – the best people get the better jobs…
So really, does it matter what sex they are as long as you have the right person?
Well, yes and no. If we want a better and more level playing field then it does matter, if it’s for getting a person to do a short term contract – then little care.
We are in the midst of a technology revolution the like of which we haven’t seen since the birth of the internet, yet people seem to be totally oblivious and most certainly misinformed about who did what and when.
Certainly five years ago while I was working on the initial development of 4G, our main concerns were the end-user products, or lack of them.
At a meeting with the major electronic goods manufacturers regarding future end user technology, no one was ready for the technology we put before them.
That meeting was the herald for the requirement of new so called ‘Smart Phone’ products and technologies.
The meeting was the start of future and planning of this revolution.
But right there and then – they didn’t know where to start, they had no idea of what trades within their fields they would need to nurture etc.
This industry never gets old and neither do the people who work in it. It IS a field you can walk away from and return to years later and while many will argue this (wrongly), they forget what it is that drives the engineers, the software crunchers and everyone else…. The Passion of innovation, the new ground and the ability that the one stupid careless thought you had in the shower this morning could be the difference of millions of pounds or simply changing the entire course of our industry  – or simply to solve the most challenging of puzzles.

A New Path
It is VITAL that right now in the UK we need to act, change and adapt far faster than anytime since the industrial revolution. We need to get to grips with technology, not only for industry but the End User as well, because the speed that today’s common place technologies have changed in the last five years means that not only are we educationally behind right now, but in the next five years we could be in a situation where we won’t even be able to attain a starting point.
We MUST change certain aspects of our education system to coerce the younger generations towards a serious and rewarding career and as a nation, a more effective future.
We also need to ‘Sell’ these skills and roles to them… kids are not stupid, they can take responsibility and make decisions.
We must get to grips with the social aspects and portrayal of the industry and people via our entertainment industries and media.
We have to produce effective and informed guides to EVERY aspect of IT and the thousands of different roles within.
Women should be encouraged from a young age in their technical abilities and we must discard previous stereo-types that are so common today.
Encourage of an environment of mavericks and renegades. These are the people who will change the world with the right know-how.
Today’s IT companies and the industry as a whole must understand that each sector, no matter how financially effective, is only a very small part in a far, far greater picture.

In conclusion
Can we change the ratio of male to female IT workers? I believe we can, and we can do so effectively. But it is about encouraging and involving both sexes equally.
Personally I’m prepared to work on this, I believe whole heartedly in what I have written here.
There is no overnight fix, but we can go a very long way to fix a whole host of issues very simply.
We must evangelise the industry and keep raising both the bar and the packages that entice.
I say this because while I will never knock personal wealth and success, there comes a time when you see the billionaire industry leaders and ask, why not earn  just a little less and pay your people a whole lot more, make them just want to get up in a morning and run to work.
My conclusion is that the social and media based stereotype is for the most part the cause of the decline in women choosing IT as a career path. But I believe that we have serious issues affecting every aspect of the road to working in IT that must be addressed irrespective of the sex of the individual. However, one issue I have not mentioned here is ‘Human Factors’. But I do believe that this is an industry you can leave to bring up a family, but moreover – return to later.

A plan of Action
For those wishing to act, move further and truly step up to the plate that is required so urgently, here is my immediate list of recommendations.
A further document can be written to clarify details.
The immediate set up of two 3rd party groups (ie not Civil Service).
One to set out an education platform, and the other to start the creation of the global IT career database.

1 Education
With access to an Education dept. liaison, this small group would need to know if a system of industry based training has ever occurred previously across the EU and the world at this level, if so – what were the results.
This team would require cross access to specialists in both the Education and IT field.
Examination of the Level 3 curriculum shows several places where trade based training can replace existing less useful subjects.
The relevant companies will need to a have input and where possible their help and sponsorship gained to enable to proving of a new syllabus.
Hardware companies will also be required in both setting the standard and also in the provision of present and obsolete products.
While a full trial would take around six years, the reality is that actionable data will have been achieved within three.
Further investigations will need to be addressed on elective subjects i.e. Art with use of 50% or one year spent learning primary skills – followed with the next year learning industry recognised digital art software, using the previous years course work.
There can also be dedicated courses in basic software engineering etc.
A hand full of schools would be required to take part an initial trial and it would be useful to acquire the aid of a complete cross section of State, Private and new schools to enable this.

2 Industry Bible Database
Again a small group would require the ability of autonomous information gathering.
Based primarily on simply emailing HR departments within all companies to gather basic information.
Secondary anonymous information could possibly be gained from the industry governing body CompTIA and in the UK by the BCS.
Further and possibly within more sensitive fields such as defence etc, persons would probably be required to go and speak face to face with departments both here and overseas.
A liaison with the Foreign Office would be required.
The database would either be made to be free for global access or, if Govt. sponsored, it could have a payable access, thus the project would not only pay for itself, but would probably return a realistic profit.

Finally
These two things can happen and happen very quickly indeed with the right people driving it.
But it will not work without government and industry support. It is vital and completely within the remit of the National Interest.

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Published on 5 February, 2010 at 18:26  Comments (12)  

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is very interesting and even I get the jist of it. I so agree with the education thing, so much learnt at school is a waste of time if not taught alongside a subject you can use in the real world.
    I always find it odd that when applying for a job years after leaving school it still asks for your GCSE results, most of which are totally unrelated to the job (and bad results) and were so long ago, but with your idea it would be real life knowledge and understanding along with a qualification.

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  4. Who is this BCS group, I’ve worked all my life in this industry and I’ve never heard of them.

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