United action required to attract women to UK IT leadership

A research project by the Open University finds continuing barriers to women being better represented in highly-skilled positions in UK IT

The global IT sector is characterised by low participation of women with the UK being no exception. Many attempts have been made to address the problem of small and falling numbers of women in IT education, training and employment; narrowing the gender gap in high productivity sectors such as IT are forecast to add 150 billion GBP to the UK GDP forecast for 2025. However, these attempts have been met with little success.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESCRC)-funded project – ‘Gender, Skilled Migration and IT industry: a comparative study of India and the UK‘ – compared the profiles of the IT industry in UK with those in India. It considered why the IT sector in India, in contrast to many places including the UK, manages to attract a high proportion of women to highly-skilled roles. It also gained insights from migrant women and men who move between the two countries, and have experience of both cultures, to understand both the gender norms and the best practice in each country.

The OU project was led by Professor of Geography and Migration, Parvati Raghuram, with co-investigator Dr Clem Herman, Senior Lecturer in Computing and Communications, and Research Associates Dr. Gunjan Sondhi and Dr. Esther Ruiz Ben. The project partners included the BCS, TechLondon Advocates, techUK and NASSCOM.

Among the outputs from the two-year study was the ‘Women and IT Scorecard – India, 2018’ and the ‘Women in IT Leadership: Moving towards gender parity’ (launched in Chennai, India, on 13th March 2018). A final breakfast seminar was held on 20th March: ‘What can the UK learn from India to bridge the IT skills gap?’  to release the findings. The highlights are that the Indian IT sector:  

 – has achieved comparative advantage to other sectors by offering career support; high status, reward and security; and visible equality policies that attract women;

 – effectively recruits into the sector through targeted high profile campaigns and campus recruitment; 50% of the companies recruit directly through universities providing a safe pipeline from study to work;

 – enables career progression as 50% of the companies offer in-house leadership and management programmes; this has contributed to 30% of companies doubling the proportion of senior women between 2012 and 2017

 – invests in skills development to retain staff and keep a competitive edge

Professor Raghuram said: “Addressing the shortage of women in IT requires that the sector not only offers benefits but outperforms other competing sectors, and projects its gender equality policies effectively through targeted campaigns.”

The Open University is one of the key partners in the newly launched Institute of Coding, leading on the theme of University Learners and the development of a new accreditation standard bringing together HEIs and industry.

The OU’s project lead for the Institute of Coding, Professor John Domingue, said: “As attracting greater female students to computing is a key aim of the Institute of Coding we will be maintaining a close watch on the results of this exciting new project. We commend the team for the novel approach that they have taken for the work.”

The opening remarks of the seminar on March 20 were given by the Open University’s Chancellor, Baroness Martha Lane Fox, who is leading a high level campaign called Dot Everyone. The London-based think tank is staffed by researchers, designers, technologists, and makers, and aims to increase the numbers and retention of women in technology jobs in the UK.

Martha Lane-Fox said: “We really need to put women at the heart of the technology sector, so I applaud this important research which can help us understand why there is such a gender imbalance in the UK’s IT industry.

“Ultimately I hope it will help us achieve a cohort of female coders, designers and creators who can help transform the UK and give us that much-needed global edge.”