Attracting more women in to IT - A new chance?
There just aren’t enough women in IT, that is something that has been abundantly clear for many years… and so my question for today, my very first public question, is this…Can the IT industry, consultancies and organisations that are looking to grow their IT teams, capitalise on some of the shifts in thinking that have happened over the last 12 months and use that to help address the obvious imbalance. Now, regardless of whether you think the changes that have been introduced as a result of the pandemic were long overdue or forced upon you, we all have a real opportunity here to try a new approach.
I’m talking about one particular demographic, specifically those women who have taken time out to have children and who now struggle to find suitable term time work that fits around school hours, but realistically this could of course be applied to any number of people wanting to cross skill and find something new.
One question that we should start with is why are women generally not attracted to the quite clearly glamorous world of technology in the first place? I’m no expert, but over the years I have spoken to many women about the imbalance as it is something I find not only intriguing but that I feel is hugely important to address. It might well be because the technology industry is, let’s face it, still very heavily male dominated and is highly likely that there are still many negative cultures towards women. Whether these are perceived or real is irrelevant, the impact and effect is the same as equally damaging. Or, maybe there is something else, something that we haven’t quite figured out yet and whilst we can’t address the unknown, we can act on changing a number of things and provide the opportunity to learn, cross skill and provide a safe working environment, and we can most definitely do more to root out any legacy misogynistic or sexist cultures.
If you are someone who runs an IT consultancy or company, or if you are looking to expand your IT team, then please listen on as this is a real chance for us to change traditional thinking and open up new ways of attracting female minds into the IT sector. And if you are listening to this with the view to returning to work, or starting out on a new venture in IT, I hope it provides you with a new approach in to returning to work. Now on to the question of ‘how are we going to make this happen?’
In my mind there are five main areas we need to talk through.
· The culture within IT
· How we change mindsets
· The way people learn technical skills
· New working practices
· How we are going to attract women into IT
Firstly, let’s look at the culture. I have been in a good number of meetings over the years and, in the past, it has been necessary to stop or correct an ex-colleague or client from using inappropriate language, many people aren’t comfortable doing this, be it a direct rebut or a quiet word, we as an industry must drive this out. It doesn’t matter if it is casual sexism, outright sexism or misogynistic comments, we must make the change. Thankfully it is not something I have had to deal with in my current organisation, but it has been noticeable throughout my career. Maybe my current place has the right attitude, or maybe the general levels of this kind of thing have been dropping over the years. I like to think we have the right culture in place, but should it arise, be in no doubt that I am happy to put a stop to it. Same goes for any other kind of prejudice really.
I know not all organisations are at the same cultural stage but we all spend a lot of time working, why then would someone want to work in an environment where they were treated as a lesser being, or with unequalled respect? Not even in jest. I know I wouldn’t. This is a culture that must be driven from the top, it can’t be tolerated, no more ‘Oh that is just the way Bob is’ type attitudes, I’m sorry, actually no I’m not sorry, if Bob can’t adapt his behaviour, attitude or language, then Bob has no place in that workplace. (Sorry to pick on anyone called Bob – just the first name to come to mind, I’m sure nearly all Bobs are great and not sexist at all)
As business leaders, this has to come from us, we need to coach and guide our teams to help create something that is, safe, healthy and suitable for the 21st century. Not just for woman, but for all people, regardless of their beliefs, gender association, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability or disability etc. It’s very simple, does the person have the skill and ability to perform the role? Yes, do they have the support and drive? Yes. … and that is it. Nothing else really matters too much.
Changing business mindsets.
Many organisations are still in the frame of mind that they need bums on seats from 9am – 5pm to do a job effectively. (clearly I am not talking about businesses that have manufacturing plants, front line workers etc, I am talking about offices) The 9-5 mentality is more often than not, no longer the case. Again, as leaders we need to address these legacy ways of thinking within our businesses. If you are familiar with my articles, you’ll know that this is something that I repeatedly talk about, for the last 10 years at least… and work needs to change to an outcome driven approach. If we change that, we will make our lives far easier. If the last 12 months have proven anything, it is that working from home can operate very well and very efficiently. Yes, it is different, but different does not mean wrong. Trust your employees to do the outcome-based tasks they have been given and address it if they don’t.
Organisations can’t continue in this legacy way, IT projects have moved away from design, build and deploy phases, into much more of a collaborative interaction with the technology and business owners. This results in a more fragmented and task-based schedule, that allows for multitasking and in return, greater flexibility. And that flexibility can be equally applied to those women looking for careers that can accommodate school hours. Anyone joining my team, will get the same message about flexibility and responsibility and I’ll touch on that in a minute.
Training and the way people learn
Training and learning mechanisms have also moved on dramatically, gone are the days of default, classroom based, instructor led training. The training resources available online are now fabulous, Microsoft Learn, Pluralsight, technical articles and even YouTube channels provide a wealth of training and information, and most of the learning is now free for online or if you want to be instructor led, you can, remotely, but for a fee. There are also great peer groups for you to gain additional support as you progress. How you learn and when you learn is now completely up to you. You have the freedom and flexibility to take the path you want and all this can be done in parallel to your current work or home life and if you pick the right learning paths for those technologies that are in demand, you can elect to take a certification to prove your new skills. Microsoft Exams are around £113GBP or $157USD. If you take the approach of learning online and taking the exams, then as long as you put in the training, it is an inexpensive way to change your career direction.
New working practices
The last 12 months has been a real rollercoaster of a year for technology, new services and solutions have been deployed and rolled out at an incredible pace. So fast that the for those seeking to recruit, it has become a major challenge. The recruitment market has gone crazy and currently there is a lack of resource. Organisations are hunting for new skills and areas like Microsoft Teams, Azure, Security, Endpoint Management, and Collaboration have grown massively. These areas are going to require organisations to retrain their staff and bring in new skills, both of which will demand considerable investment or they will look to the world of consultancy and IT partners to manage this ever-widening technical area.
IT consultancies are now far less concerned about what hours you work, or where you work, so long as you are available for calls, meetings and you do what you say you will, when you said you would, to the level of quality that is expected. in previous times, IT consultancy would have meant large amounts of time travel, working away from home and the kids etc. Something not appealing when you have a new or young family. I’m a dad, I know that even now I don’t really like being away from home. Time spent with my son is super precious and soon enough he’ll want to do things without me hanging around, so I’ll take as much time with him as I can, now, before that kicks in.
Businesses all over the world are also feeling much more open to accommodating people’s personal and home lives. Many have been forced to work from home where previously this was something that was given little consideration or seen as unproductive, as all people who work from home do is watch daytime TV in their underwear… but now businesses have had to address this reality of working from home, and it works. It has actually been working very well for years, and now work can generally be fitted in around school hours without much issue. What hadn’t shifted was the general management attitude towards remote working, but with the last 12 months driving this change and fast internet connections being available pretty much everywhere, there are very few reasons to think that it doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong, working remotely full time does come with a different mindset from both the worker and management, and this must be given consideration, but it should not be considered a blocker. My thoughts are that many IT organisations will continue to have a default policy of working from home with some travel to the office as and when they reopen, but I would be highly surprised and disappointed if everyone was expected to return to a Monday to Friday in the office approach.
Attracting women into IT
There is still an initial challenge that we all face, and that is encouraging women to apply for roles in IT to begin with. How do we make these roles and this new way of working more appealing to women? We need to get the message out that there is a new opportunity that has not really been there before in the form currently laid before us and we need to change the legacy cultures and let them and everyone know that it is a nice, safe, supportive place to work with hours and a lifestyle that can accommodate flexibility.
I know that I personally would certainly make time for someone who has dedicated, and invested, time in themselves to retrain for a new role. That shows a real drive and strength of character, I would be happy to support that person in their learning and development, on their new adventure. This is a shift that has to be wide within the industry, it has to become the norm, it can’t be a few good organisations.
Something else we need to consider is the early stages of attracting women into IT, the school curriculum. This is where I think the largest of all investment needs to come from. From schools right the way through to University, we need to make this make this more appealing, more ‘real world’ and certainly not all based around coding. Scripting, yes, but not all code, code, code. The school curriculum needs to become more in touch with how the business world operates, and not just for women, but for all, and it needs to change to reflect those changes. I get the feeling that our approach to IT in school is like teaching kids how to prepare for playing Call of Duty Black Ops by training them on Missile Command or Defender… nice, but we’ve moved on massively. Technology moves at an incredibly fast pace and our core education curriculum isn’t. I have just read through the current one and wow, how uninteresting can IT be made to sound, and how disconnected from life. I had trouble staying awake just on the points to be covered, based on that, regardless of any gender or association, I am quite frankly surprised anyone goes into IT. I’d like to survey the schools and get a real feel of what the next generations think to this and see if it varies between demographics… just a little food for thought there.
There are clearly a number of factors that we need to work on here, starting out with the right attitudes and core learning in schools, including creating a welcoming and not-tediously dull scope.
We need to put the mechanisms in place to facilitate the ability of cross skilling and working, and we need to make sure that it gets really well, and continuously, promoted.
Finally, we need to change the culture to make the workplace more attractive and appealing to women. But here is the real big think… at the beginning of this, I talked about applying this to a wide range of demographics, maybe this is not just an opportunity for engaging more women, but what about those with mental health issues who aren’t so keen on being out in public or disable people who can’t travel to client site easily. This is a major chance to increase diversity across the board, this is a real enabler for not just women. Let’s not lose this chance to rethink things.
I can work on the learning, opportunities and culture within my circle, but I can’t do it for the wider world, nor can I change the early years in schools and Universities, but together, and with the IT industry, we can take advantage of the changes and look to create a more positive balance in the workplace now, and for future generations to come.