The South African IT industry is still male-dominated, although companies are keen to place women in roles that were previously seen as the preserve of men. The problem is attracting the right calibre of women into the industry.
Dominique Lagesse, sales director at IT Intellect, says there is a definite need for more women in the IT industry.
"There is a dearth. And there is certainly a lack of women in top level jobs. This employment landscape has to change as women add a different perspective to the employment landscape. They often tackle problems, or challenges, differently to men. This can be an advantage in some situations.
"I think one of the glass-ceiling barriers is that companies think that women just cannot get to the same technical heights as men – and this is incorrect. It is a mindset we need to change."
A recent UK-based study showed that IT companies all want to find women to fill their technical roles.
The research concluded that the focus on getting women into the industry should be on the initial signals.
It was suggested that companies should place more focus on the training of hiring managers, the look and feel of their Web sites, and the presence of women on their stalls at recruitment fairs.
"The research clearly emphasises a 'family friendly' approach to recruiting women," says Lagesse. "And this must be from the very beginning of the hiring phase. There should also be less of an emphasis on specific IT quantifications.
"The irony is that while the UK technology giants interviewed for the study wanted to employ more women – particularly in technical and client-racing job positions – they are failing to take the necessary steps to attract women into their ranks. I believe this is also a potential problem in this country."
IT companies in South Africa are active in a number of initiatives aimed at helping young people, especially women, overcome some of the challenges they face in pursuiing careers in IT.
For instance, IBM South Africa last week ran a camp aimed at encouraging girls to take maths and science to matric as one way of helping to increase the pool of young women able to enter the industry.
Women in IT (WIIT) says much has to be done to encourage girls and women to pursue a career in the sector, which remains disturbingly male-dominated in spite of encouraging growth in recent years. It is estimated that only about 20% of the current ICT workforce is female.
Microsoft SA’s business marketing executive, Heather Third, says it is vital that women be in a position to influence and direct the ICT sector. The continued exclusion of women from ICTs implies that women will have few opportunities to influence the ways in which these technologies develop and affect their lives.
These are among the issues that will be discussed at a series of WIIT Forums to be held across the country in coming weeks, including a lunchtime function in Cape Town on 24 July. Headed by Microsoft and funded through corporate sponsorship, WIIT creates formal and informal networks between women IT students, tertiary institutions, South African IT professionals and corporates.
“A country cannot compete in an increasingly global ICT market if half of its talented citizens are not participating,” said Third. “The ICT industry is losing the talent of skilled women who can bring to it a richness and diversity of thought and perspective and can help alleviate the shortage of skills, which is exacerbated by their lack of participation.”
WIIT says the key issues that need to be actioned to address South Africa’s ICT skill shortage include changing the image of the ICT Industry and articulating clearer education and career pathways.
These factors, together with government efforts to promote Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) excellence and gender equity, make it imperative to understand what the barriers are that hinder women’s full participation and advancement in the ICT industry and what can be done to remove those barriers.
“These issues are particularly relevant for girls,” said Third. “We have to show them that IT offers diverse, interesting and very lucrative career options. It is imperative that South Africa stimulates the contribution made by women in ICTs.
“Not only is the low participation of women in high-level ICTs a problem for women, but also for the industry and the country.”