Equal opportunities are quite rightly given a high profile in the world of work, yet there are still areas of industry where men significantly outnumber women – in particular, in the science and technology related sectors.

As a woman working in IT, one of the most male dominated industries, I make up only 20% of the workforce: only one in five IT workers are female. What’s more, this number is on the decline, and with a similar percentage of women choosing IT related degree courses, the figures look unlikely to improve in the near future.

I find these statistics are surprising as IT is such an integral part of most sectors, including those such as publishing, healthcare and recruitment which are generally favoured by women. Whilst the newspapers are full of stories of government cuts and times of austerity, unemployment actually fell by 36,000 in the quarter to March 2011. This means that the concept of a surplus of the skilled unemployed all begging for jobs is actually a myth.

In fact, there is a shortage of skilled workers in IT, so the industry needs to extend the pool from which it can draw its workforce. If 50% of that potential workforce is opposed to the idea of working in IT, the industry has a problem. Interestingly, in this same quarter, the number of women in full time employment increased by 54,000 so they are finding employment somewhere – just not in IT.

An image problem

It seems to me that my industry has a major image problem. Whilst the stereotype of the computer geek prevails it will always be difficult to attract women to join the industry. They fear being marginalised, discriminated against or simply isolated in a male dominated workplace. Fortunately, my personal experience has been largely positive, but the problem remains of how to get this message across?

Schools and colleges are the best place start as it would appear that this is where the negative perceptions begin. It’s well known that girls tend to favour subjects such as languages and the humanities at GCSE, A and degree level. Data from the Office of National Statistics supports the theory that men are drawn to science and technology, whilst women opt for public service and the ‘caring’ professions.

The power of a positive role model

So, in order to foster a more positive image of women working in IT, companies need to get into schools and talk to young people face to face. Offering career advice from women working in IT, giving talks and running Q and A sessions are all useful strategies to foster a more positive perception.

In addition, offering mentoring, visits to the workplace and encouraging girls to widen their horizons by taking up work experience in a technology orientated environment can all help to turn the tide. Finally, enabling students to work shadow successful women working in IT can provide a powerful positive role model for students.

Adapting to the workforce

Another way of attracting women to become part of the IT workforce is to introduce more flexibility. Working mothers, and fathers too for that matter, are often attracted by more accommodating working practices which enable them more freedom to organise child care and family life.

Organisations are increasingly aware of the benefits that more flexible working practices can have for all staff, irrespective of their age, situation and gender. So, by offering job shares, part time roles, working from home and flexible working hours as options, a company will attract more skilled working mothers and other high calibre candidates.

A confidence boost

Many companies spend a lot of time and effort training their personnel and it is understandably frustrating if they lose that skilled person when they go on maternity leave and fail to return. But, as increasing numbers of mothers are returning to work, a company needs to question why its female employees fail to return after having a family.

The flexible working practices that I mentioned earlier could be a factor, but so could the issue of confidence. Many women returning to work after a career break for whatever reason lack confidence. They are worried that the industry will have moved on and that they will be unable to cope. Given the speed at which technology moves, coming back into an IT orientated role is doubly daunting.

To counteract this, companies need to offer support and training to their returners – which is after all, simply good practice for all employers. Offering induction programmes, mentoring or specialised retraining can all help to encourage skilled women back to the workplace. This issue isn’t confined to IT and has been recognised as a problem for industry in general. Because of this, organisations have been set up with the remit of supporting women in science and technology.

For example, the website www.women-returners.co.uk has a list of providers who run courses to help those returning to work whilst the UK Resource Centre offers an online course aimed at women returners with a SET (Science, Engineering or Technology) background. These are run via The Open University with the aim of assisting women returning to a career in science, engineering or technology.

I am proud to work in IT – I find it a fulfilling and interesting career, but it is disappointing that the industry is still failing to attract larger numbers of women into its workforce. However, the fault is not all on one side. Whilst IT companies and departments need to evaluate their working practices and the image that they are sending out, women also need to keep an open mind and at the very least give some thought to working in IT. If women dismiss the industry out of hand, they are missing out on to the great opportunities that a career in IT could offer them.