Tech firms should use WITS to attract girls

 

Everyone knows the technology industry in the Republic is worried about the skills shortage. As more and more companies locate here from abroad and the indigenous technology sector continues to grow, there are well-founded fears that the Republic cannot provide enough properly skilled employees.

However, one group of potential employees still remains relatively invisible: women. In the Republic as elsewhere, the number of girls taking "hard" science courses physics, chemistry, maths, engineering, and computer science remains dismally low.

It's hard to put exact figures on the numbers and percentages here in the Republic, but the trend has been clear for several years and is widely reported by lecturers within those subjects.

Solid figures are available in the US, and they reveal very worrying trends. For example, while 37.1 per cent of bachelor degrees awarded in computer science went to women in 1984, this had slipped to 28.4 per cent by 1994.

The National Science Foundation in the US says that in 1995, the most recent year for which data are available, only 22 per cent of the science and engineering workforce was women.

A study last year by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) showed that while the gender gap for female students is closing somewhat in science and maths, it is widening in technology. Females rank themselves lower in this area, and use computers less frequently outside of school. Undoubtedly highly relevant to these findings is that the report also found that across the board, software programs reinforce gender bias and roles.

The US is so concerned that it has set up an 11-member government committee just to look at the problem and to consider how these trends can be reversed. Certainly, the result at the hiring end of things is clear; companies say they have a very hard time finding women candidates to interview for positions. At least three times in the past month, managing directors have asked me if I know any qualified women for programming posts, project management jobs, senior management roles, system administration and, in one case, accountancy.

In each case, these men told me they actually preferred women in certain roles. In the general run of things, they found them to be more reliable, less likely to arrive late or haggard after a night on the tear, more willing to work in teams and better able to get along with team members. In particular, every one of them said they felt women "multi-task" (handle a number of tasks simultaneously) better, a talent particularly suited to solving programming problems, collaborating on projects, or thinking efficiently as a project leader, especially in multi-disciplinary sectors like multimedia production.

So what needs to change? Girls, as any primary teacher will tell you, are active and interested science students, often outperforming boys, until they hit 13 or 14 exactly the point at which they worry about conformity and getting boyfriends and "acting like a girl". The Irish organisation, Women in Technology and Science (WITS), says that many existing programmes attempt to lure young women into technology after this crucial point when they've made other decisions and, crucially, rarely see any female role models in technology careers. Thus, WITS has put in place some programmes that get women technologists into classrooms and get girls to visit technology workplaces so they can get a sense of all the possibilities and opportunities of a tech career. Just as important, the girls are offered clear role models of women who delight in tech and the sciences and find them deeply rewarding.

On the other end of the scale, WITS also serves as a social forum for women in science and technology careers, who can often feel isolated within the workplace. The group runs occasional events as well as training programmes and seminars and makes submissions to Government in relevant areas.

So here's an idea: why don't all of the technology companies which are seeking women employees and which would like to address the looming skills shortage at an early and productive stage contact WITS? It seems to me that there's huge scope for developing highly productive, targeted programmes that would help reverse the alienation girls feel from technology and science. The end result: a larger pool of employees, and more women in technology.

In addition, WITS is an ideal forum for bringing together the thousands of women who now work in these sectors. Women can join for £30 (€38) and students for £10. Corporate membership is a mere £500 annually and this enables women within a company to take part in WITS events and receive the group's newsletter. Some tech companies are already WITS supporters - among them, IBM, Lotus, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq - but there are hundreds more of you out there who could benefit.

Addressing the twin problems of a skills shortage and a shortage of women in technology is not just the job of Government and cannot simply be addressed at the tail end of the process, with third-level initiatives or retraining for adults.

WITS offers the burgeoning technology sector a way of reaching into the community and capturing minds and hearts at the point where it really matters. In turn, that benefits Irish society as a whole further down the line, as the workforce becomes more diverse and women make a more significant and appropriate contribution to the country's future.

Companies interested in more information on WITS can contact chairwoman (and civil engineer) Helen Hughes at wits@iol.ie.

klillington@irish-times.ie