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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 18:16 GMT
Girls 'put off technology jobs'
By Alison Smith
BBC News education reporter

Toshiba roundtable debate
The women emphasised the diverse career options available
Most schoolgirls enjoy using computer technology but only a quarter want related jobs, UK research suggests.

A study of 1,112 girls aged 11 to 18 found a fifth said they wanted more access to technology at school, and only 4% thought computers "boring".

But the proportion of information technology workers who are female is down to 21%, the study by Toshiba said.

Industry experts say a lack of diversity and a skills shortage will threaten the UK's global position.

'Too much testosterone'

The Toshiba report also said the proportion of IT workers who were female had declined steadily since the 1960s.

Against this backdrop, 11 women who are influential in IT debated why so many were put off following them, and why it mattered.

"We care about this morally, but also on a practical level," said Maggie Berry from Women in Technology.

"Women do bring different skills to the table. Without women you do not have a complete team."

"There's too much testosterone in my department," added Toshiba's head of information systems, Sandra Smith.

She said the male predominance even affected her own role, because she ended up being involved in areas she would rather be able to delegate.

Too few women clearly leaves a skills gap to be filled.

Their starting point was to ask why 84% of girls questioned believed computer work was about administrative and secretarial jobs.

Many of the speakers felt women were more inclined to choose a job where the outcome of their work was more visible.

This is why many were turning their backs on the corporate sector and moving to smaller businesses, said Dr Glenda Stone, chief executive officer with Aurora.

Working in IT could involve aims beyond the machines themselves, they said.

Careers advice

And according to Melody Hermon of Computer Club for Girls, girls are usually much less interested in how the machines work, than in what they can achieve.

So why were schools not opening their eyes to the breadth of jobs they could enter, the women asked.

Careers' advisers came in for a fair amount of criticism.

"I'm a linguist by trade," BT's Pat Barlow said. "But I'm a commercial person. I didn't know I had a future in IT.

"But my careers adviser said I could only be a civil servant or a teacher."

Teachers' confidence to deal with technology could also be an issue, several thought.

But not everybody agreed that curriculum changes were the answer.

"I believe that there should be a subject called technology," said Dr Stone.

This would make pupils more aware of the value of IT in business and society, and what it can lead to," she said.

But the technology label might turn some girls off to begin with, others countered.

Patience Wheatcroft (debate chair) - business editor, The Times
Margaret Moran MP - Parliamentary Backbench Committee for women
Sandra Smith - Toshiba head of information systems
Rachel Burnett - British Computer Society
Teresa Scofield - Cranfield University
Melody Hermon - Computer Club for Girls
Annette Williams - UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology
Maggie Berry - Women in technology
Glenda Stone - Aurora
Ursula Morgenstrom - Atos Origin
Pat Barlow - BT Global Services

Pupils in England currently study ICT (information and communication technology) up to Key Stage 4, 16 years old.

The national curriculum emphasises skills in evaluating and presenting information and research, and says pupils should be able to reflect critically on the social, moral, legal, ethical and political issues related to its use.

But their own businesses should be more visible and do more to promote work experience for school-age girls, the women agreed.

Sandra Smith said she had detected that some women were "proud not to be a tecchie" and "leave knowing what all the widgets do to somebody else" - usually a man.

But without this core knowledge - which she said schools should be teaching - girls would lack the confidence to enter a sector they might perceive as geared towards men.

24/7 working?

Teresa Schofield from Cranfield University said she had "constantly been required to prove her commitment" once she returned to work after having children.

"I never said no to anything," she said. "If you don't work full time, forget it."

IT representatives
The 'jackets on seats' syndrome does not help attract women
"Too many companies still subscribe to the 'jackets on seats' syndrome," Times business editor Patience Wheatcroft added.

The inference is that women may take an early decision to avoid sectors which make a life outside work problematic.

And those who take the risk may find they do not progress as quickly as men and face a pay gap, the women agreed.

Family-friendly policies are undoubtedly important, but it is not clear whether the perception of a "24/7" industry could even begin to deter younger girls.

Eleven women took away a host of constructive suggestions and an action plan - though one or two were not convinced that attracting more women into the sector was a priority in as many (male-dominated) board rooms as they would wish.

However, it is a situation they appear to want wholeheartedly to change.

Women valued for technology roles
28 Oct 05 |  Technology
Women are 'put off' hi-tech jobs
08 Sep 05 |  Technology
Women experts urged back to labs
11 May 05 |  Science/Nature

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