Why are there so few women in the IT sector? And does it matter?
These are among the questions posed by Ulandi Exner, president of the Institute of IT Professionals of South Africa (IITPSA), who points out that just 20% of the people in the IT sector are women.
But is it important, she asks? Many industries are dominated by men and there isn’t the same level of concern.
“So why should we give it so much focus? ” She asks.
But it does matter, Exner says. “The IT industry is global, and should be diverse. Without women we miss the potential for diversity and greater innovation.
“Women have a crucial role to play in technology.”
Women’s choices impact up to 80% of purchasing decisions, so there are good reasons for technology companies to make an effort to understand these customers.
In addition, companies need people with a variety of strengths, who embrace problems in different ways.
The IT industry is thriving but women are missing out on these interesting, high paying jobs, Exner says. “We need women to fuel the workforce – without them we may not be able to build the future workforce.”
Where does the problem start, though?
Exner gives a personal perspective of being brought up in a conservative household where roles were very clearly defined. “Luckily I rebelled against that notion,” she says.
Despite not playing computer games or having computer studies at school, an aptitude test encouraged a career in machines.
After school she fell into a career in IT training, which flowed to help desk, technician and IT manager.
“During my career I haven’t experienced overt sexism,” she says. “But there has been a lot of condescension.
“So it has been tough, and it is still tough, being a woman in IT. “My peers have always earned more than me; and I’ve always had to work harder to do the same. In addition, it has always been lonely.”
However, Exner says, there have been many opportunities to prove people wrong.
“Having said that, we should make it easier for women to enter the IT industry.”
To improve the situation, she recommends starting with early schooling, where all pupils have to take computer studies.
“We also need to do away with media stereotypes – you are not a nerd if you enjoy tech; and not all girls want to go into the beauty industry.”
We need to raise awareness and ensure that girls understand the various paths that the It industry offers, she adds.
In the workforce, a lot can be done differently as well.
Studies show that women leave the IT industry because of the hostile work environment. “So one of the biggest barriers is unconscious bias. We all suffer from it,” Exner says.
She recommends that people all take tests identify and rectify biases.
In addition, hiring should be on the basis of skills only. “Be sure to remove all possible bias triggers in hiring,” she recommends.
Organisations should also offer more flexible working arrangements. “Many women leave the industry because they want to raise a family – and can’t do it. As a result the industry is losing a lot of talent. Having a career and raising a family shouldn’t be a choice.”
Companies need to lead the change, Exner says “More role models will encourage other women to join organisations, thus increasing company growth and productivity.
“More women in tech roles can help to break the mould.”
As a society, she adds, we all have the power to make a change.
She encourages initiatives to get more women into technology that include an improvement in education; championing of new role models; and challenging of negative stereotypes with more networking and mentoring opportunities.
“We do not accept the current status: women in IT are important and we should care,” Exner concludes.