Is IT Still Largely a Man’s World?

AN inability to attract young women to IT&T and to retain and retrain older women is one of the most complex factors contributing to the current skills shortage, and one of the topics about which I receive most emails.A University of Technology Sydney study by researcher Amanda Elliot shows less than 20% of computing students in Australian universities are female and as little as 12% in some. This is part of a worldwide trend-in the US, fewer women are completing undergrad degrees in computing than 10 years ago, and in the UK, enrolment of women in IT courses has halved since 1970. And of the estimated 300,000 computer professionals in Australia, only 20%-60,000-are women.

This declining participation of women in IT&T is alarming, according to Senator Kate Lundy, shadow minister for sport, youth affairs, and assisting on information technology.

“For the economic rationalists and misogynists, there are as many dry arguments for investing significant resources into ensuring more women choose IT as there are philosophical arguments of equity,” she says.

“Australia’s trade deficit in information and communication technologies is ballooning and will grow from $6 billion to $46 billion within 5 years if left unchecked. We need to support our own IT&T industry and create jobs here.”

Part of the answer is in attracting young women, wooing back older ones who’ve left and encouraging non-IT women to change careers, according to Ann Moffatt, head of Technology Solutions and founder of Females in IT&T.

“If we could get the number of women in IT&T to 30% – 90,000 – instead of the current 20%, we’d kill the skills shortage.”

August 1, 2001

Is IT Still Largely a Man’s World? (cont’d)

This problem is just part of a much larger social change-that Australian women are marrying later, and then having fewer children later-which will have a huge impact on the country in years to come. 2 years ago, in 1998, 37% of women marrying were over 30 years of age compared with 20% 20 years ago. The median age for first-time mothers has risen from 26.1 years in 1977 to 29.4 in 1997, and the average number of children has fallen to 1.76. Plus, it’s estimated that almost 30% of women will not have children, compared with 10% childless in the 1960s.Why, you may well ask, does this matter? Well, to put it bluntly in economic rationalist terms, if there are fewer breeders, then there are fewer code-cutters and consumers of products. And if you want to tizz up the argument by speaking in terms of a “knowledge economy”, then we have to start investing in the capital to run that society-and that capital is humans.

There are two broad questions here: why are women deserting motherhood in general, and the IT&T industry in particular? I’ll explore some possible answers over the next weeks.

It’s too expensive financially

Economic modellers at the Australian National University suggest that the cost in forgone wages is $200,000 for the first child and $60,000 for each subsequent child.

The precise amount of these figures depends on the work the woman was doing before the birth of her children. For highly trained women who’ve invested years in qualifications, the cost of the lost working years is enormous-both financially and in career advancement.

And for poorer women, there isn’t even the middle-class luxury of debating when to return to work-they have to work outside the home to provide just the basics.

The irony is that women are encouraged to gain qualifications and work, but then vilified when they have children and choose to be at home with them, or put them in childcare.

For more stories by Philippa Yelland, visit her site at www.PhilippaYelland.com

August 1, 2001