In January the winners of Information Age's inaugural Women in IT Awards will be announced. As one of the judges I have found reviewing the entries both exciting and also incredibly worrying. The process has made me wonder how, when we have such great talent, we still have such a low level of female participation in the technology industry.
This wasn't always the case; IT started out with lots of women being involved. But somehow we have ended up in a place where less than 13 percent of the STEM workforce today is made up of women. More than four times as many boys study STEM at A-level or university and even fewer girls pursue a related career.
This gender imbalance right from the start means the industry, and indeed the UK as a whole, is missing opportunities for even greater growth, innovation and success. According to the book 'Little Miss Geek' by Belinda Parmar, tech companies with women on their management teams have a 34 percent higher return on investment.
So what can and should we be doing about this disparity? Recent years have witnessed several public and industry-led initiatives - which in themselves are all very worthy - but I wonder if we have suffered from a scattergun approach. To me there are three key areas we need to focus on:
Making STEM education more relevant
A couple of weeks ago, when launching YourLife, a programme which aims to encourage more students, particularly girls, to study STEM at A-level, the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan talked about how a decade ago pupils were encouraged to study humanities as they could open the door to a wide range of jobs. It is ironic that now, in a world dominated by technology and where maths is the subject that employers value the most, we are still living the legacy of 'arts superiority,' particularly when it comes to girls.
If they do not take an interest in STEM at school, then it is much less likely that they will work in the IT industry, particularly in more technical roles. The Your Life initiative as well as the fact that computer programming is now taught to all children from the age of five will help encourage more girls to study STEM. However I believe that we could do more. Starting with making subjects more appealing such as rolling out chemistry experiments that show students how to make lipstick, or programming exercises that enable you to design clothes, to demonstrating the exciting career paths and solid remuneration that STEM can lead to.
You can't be what you can't see - and there's no question we need to celebrate the female role models who have grown their influence within the IT industry. Celebrating those female role models helps girls to understand that a career in IT can be rewarding and successful and exciting. And as more women who have left the profession consider returning to it, celebrating our trailblazers becomes a vital part of increasing the levels of female participation. It is important that women at all stages of their career act as role models so that by achieving a critical mass of visible 'tech-women,' girls may at the least not be afraid to consider a tech career, and at best be positively encouraged to do so.
Retention and progression
Unfortunately a great many of the women that enter the technology industry also leave it, either to have children or to move to a different career, and do not return. The reasons behind this are complex and include a lack of flexibility from some employers, feeling 'out of place' as one of few women on their team and feeling undervalued. Offering flexible working and assigning mentors to these women can make a big difference, as well as encouraging them to attend female tech networking events, like those run by the Women in Tech Council. Research shows that women want to remain with their employers longer than their male counterparts, so it is definitely worth the investment in helping them to stay.
Reading the entries for the Women in IT Awards demonstrated to me the amazing roles so many women have in the industry and the extent to which they are driving their companies' successes. As the nominations show, there are so many women who are passionate about technology and who really care about encouraging more women to join the sector and stay. Yet, this is a mantle we all need to take on. I am more convinced than ever that those companies that want the best recruits then have an obligation to become involved with women in technology advocacy, otherwise they are missing out on half the workforce. Equally, as individuals, I see it as our responsibility to make the industry a better place for the next generation. We are holding it back if we do not encourage greater participation from women in technology - and all the benefits that participation brings.