Women in IT - what's holding us back?

7 December 2015

We're proud of our team at Ideal, and we've recruited some amazing people over the years, but one thing strikes me again and again: why do we get so few female applicants? Out of our staff of 40, only six are women. It's a microcosm of an industry-wide issue, and something that I've written about several times before.

I want to find a way to communicate to women that IT is absolutely a job - a career - for them, and to do my best to encourage more women to enter what has become a male-dominated industry. One of the ways we're hoping to stimulate the discussion is through a series of interviews with female IT workers to be published on our blog. For this first instalment we're talking to Susan Andrews, a 32-year IT veteran of companies including IBM, Credit Suisse and HSBC.

If you're a woman who works or worked in IT, we'd love to hear about your experiences: please get in touch. We'd love to see more female job applicants, too: if you want to join us, tell us why at HR@ideal.co.uk.

My experience of working in IT - Susan Andrews

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What did you do in your job?

I worked in IT from 1981 to 2013 - 32 years - and as the industry went through dramatic change, so did my job. I always wanted to be a developer (what is called a coder now), but there was always pressure to move 'up' into analysis and management. Most of the time I was able to resist that pressure but the job gradually evolved from straightforward programming into design.

At the time I retired, I was a relational database designer, doing data modelling for very large companies, particularly in the finance field. I was very lucky to be able to move my skill set and develop it all the time, and as a result I worked for some very big names - IBM, Credit Suisse and HSBC to name a few.

What did you study at university?

When I was at university (1967-1970) it wasn't possible to study computing as a subject. So my subjects (Archaeology/Anthropology Part 1, and English Part 2) were quite unrelated to the field.

What made you apply for your first job in IT?

I was in my early 30s, divorced with two children, and I desperately needed the money. I had an inkling that I might enjoy IT, too. At that time the government was trying hard to recruit people into IT, and it was running subsidised training courses lasting 12 weeks. These taught straightforward coding, as well as basic principles like computer architecture, operating systems, and so on.

I went along for an aptitude test and scored highly, so I decided to take the plunge and really never looked back. It meant the three of us surviving on £35 a week for one memorable summer, but once I got into employment things soon took off.

Did any female role models influence you?

I'm afraid not. At that time the industry was in its infancy. However, there was no sense either that it was a male-only field. On the course I attended the mix was about 50:50, so I honestly didn't concern myself at the time with whether or not being a woman had any bearing on my ability to do the job.

What was your experience of working in IT - did things change from the early days to your retirement?

Talking specifically about my experience as a woman in IT, yes things did change - and sadly for the worse. In my first job at Lucas Parts and Service in Birmingham, there were as many women as men doing the job. There was some awkwardness because we were developing systems for - and in - a factory, so all of our users were men and were quite shy about talking to 'technical' women. Within the team itself it wasn't a problem, but the managers were all men.

Soon after I arrived a highly-paid team of consultants from San Francisco came to direct our project, and it did cause a furore among our all-male managers because the lead consultant was a woman - and they didn't have a managers' toilet for women, only for men. Also, she wore trousers, which we were not allowed to do. A lot of taboos were challenged and broken during that two-year period, but the same was going on in all other fields - it wasn't just an IT thing.

In the early 1990s when I worked at IBM Labs in California, again there were as many women as men in my immediate team. I can't say exactly when it happened, but somehow the many other women I worked with back in the 80s and early 90s started dropping out. This was at a time when my own career was really taking off, so it can't have been because of lack of opportunity. I just looked around one day and noticed that I was vastly outnumbered by men in the team I was on. There was a standing joke among women I worked with that at certain companies, whatever the purpose of any meeting or conference, there would be a ratio of exactly 7 men to 1 women in the room. And this came to be the norm right across the industry.

I think most of those women just felt worn down by the politics of it all: the need to be available for stand-by rotas that were almost 24/7 at times, the relentless sexism of all the banter that goes on in groups where men outnumber women, the unequal pay and bonuses, the demand to sacrifice your family life to the job - it can get to you. I carried on because I enjoyed the work - and I was able to tune a lot of it out since I was technically competent and could stand up for my own ideas. Also, I still needed the money! My career was also a passport for me to some very interesting assignments in other countries - California and Japan.

At the time I retired I was working for a gigantic financial organisation, and the atmosphere in IT was more hostile to women than it was when I started in 1981. It's baffling to me how after decades of equal rights legislation we can actually have gone backwards in this way. I think it's less a feature of IT as an industry than it is of our society as a whole. Casual sexism is the norm now. The guys in the Lucas factory in 1981 wouldn't have dreamed of treating a female co-worker the way I saw them treated in a multi-storey tower in Canary Wharf in 2010.

Did any of your peers or female friends work in IT?

Yes, many. Some of the best friends I have ever had are other women I met working in IT, and I am still in touch with many of them.

Would you recommend IT as a career to other women?

Certainly. It goes without saying that you don't need to be male to work in IT. I would also urge young women not to be taken in by a lot of the rubbish we hear about maths and science being essential. A great deal of it is actually a combination of engineering and linguistics. But you do need to toughen up your heart because there are a lot of bullies in IT: there's nothing special about that though, there are bullies everywhere.

How can we encourage more women into the sector?

We must stop talking as if coding is a dark art which only mathematicians can understand. Treat it as the rewarding intellectual challenge it is, and remind girls that it pays very well - though so far, not as well as it does for men. We should encourage girls to derive as much satisfaction and self-respect from developing useful computer functions as they are supposed to do from being really really thin and getting hundreds of social media likes.

Another good step for everyone would be to abolish the tiresome 'geek' stereotype. We should introduce genuine equal rights legislation and force employers to publish comparative salary and bonus data for men and women in IT. We should also stop asking people in the field to be on 24/7 support rotas as a matter of course, and do a better job of managing IT resources so that willingness to sacrifice your family life is not a requirement for success in the field.

Main image: Susan Andrews

Header image by Flickr user U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv