Poor retention of women threatens IT skills base

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UK competitiveness is in danger if companies fail to address the balance of women employees within the workforce, particularly in senior positions, according to a report by the Women in IT Champions, backed by e-skills UK.

Based on initial research of the Champions Group member companies, the report, shows that retention is a critical issue within IT companies and IT-related careers. Although 36 percent of new hires in Q1 2002 were women, in the same period they accounted for 46% per cent of all leavers.

A key finding is that women are exiting IT careers not only at the point of motherhood, but also later on in their careers meaning that few women are fulfilling their potential progression up the career ladder, resulting in an under-representation of women at senior levels. According to the report, without the long term participation of women, the UK IT industry and companies with internal IT departments face a skills crisis at a time when there is a growing demand for skilled labour.

Rebecca George, Chair of Women in IT Champions Group, said "Successful workforce diversity initiatives are a key focus for many companies - and much progress has been made in this area. But such initiatives must be matched by everyday practices that support a flexible work environment that is attractive to working women. If companies are serious about wanting more senior women then their senior executives need to ‘walk the talk’ and put their programmes and processes into practice themselves,".

Key findings

- The IT sector is losing more women than it recruits

- Women may remain in IT employment for less time than men - representing a substantial cost to businesses.

- Women are leaving their careers at two points: as a result of motherhood and at a more mature phase in their careers.

- Work/life balance programmes, whilst important, are only tackling part of the problem. Critical corporate culture issues must also be addressed.

- Retention issues in the IT industry appear to be reflected in other sectors.

This week's Women in IT Conference looked at how businesses, education and Government are working to reverse the serious under-representation of women in IT occupations. Speakers at the conference focussed on two key issues; engaging women in IT careers and the retention of women in the IT workforce. The emphasis was on sharing best practice solutions that are delivering real results.

Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said: "The costs of recruiting and training high-skilled staff can be immense and wasted if staff are not encouraged to develop and reach their full potential in an organisation. The best employers recognise this. My aim is to make sure that all businesses get the message. It really is in the best interests of their long term productivity and competitiveness. Any business that is failing to attract and hold onto employees from 50 per cent of the workforce needs to look long and hard at their workplace practices and culture - and they need to do it quickly."

In his keynote Larry Hirst, general manager, IBM UK and Ireland commented: "The success of any industry depends upon using the capability and skills of the whole population - irrespective of gender, age, race, religion, disability, social background or sexual orientation. While women continue to be under-represented in IT companies, we must strive as an industry to build on successful workplace diversity programmes and establish work practices and office cultures that encourage more women to join, make and sustain their careers in the IT industry."

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