Topics at Women in IT Dinner

I was very pleased to be asked to kick off the discussion at a recent dinner for Women in IT, hosted by Spencer Stuart and Qedis.  I promised I would post the topics – and you will see why.

Apparently I was supposed to talk about “multi-channel in retail” but, being in blissful ignorance of this, I had notes on four topics which I am concerned about and I hoped the group gathered around the rather large table would be concerned about too.  These topics are not original but I think they matter to a UK IT audience.

Topic No 1: Social Media is Revolutionising Economy and Society

I started with the usual “Raise your hand if you:

  • use Tripadviser
  • are on Facebook
  • use Twitter
  • pin or browse on Pinterest
  • have a blog.

I find the hands go down as you go down the list, and that’s fine of course.  No one has to use social media. There are, however, still quite a lot of people who see it as something young people do. Or think that it’s nothing to do with the IT department – just for the luvvies in Marketing.  We had a good discussion and several of the women there had great examples of creative use of social media to connect with customers.

My key point on this topic is that the old web used to be one-way.  Customers bought stuff on your web site and employees got information from the Intranet.  Not any more, though: we all expect our views to be listened to and we expect to connect.  So it is up to you as a company whether you want to listen to your customers and to the people who work for you.  I think there can only be one answer to that…..

Topic No 2: The British Disease

The British Disease is not taking IT seriously.  Sometimes this important question gets reduced or personalised into “Why aren’t there more CIOs on Boards?” – which, to my mind , is not really the problem.

I do think there is something much more corrosive here for our competitiveness -which is that the British political and business class still does not get IT.  It is still OK for top business, political or cultural leaders to make a joke out of technology.  This is emphatically not the case in Berkeley, Boston, Bangalore or Beijing.  In India you pray your bright son or daughter gets a place at the elite Institute of Technology.  But in Britain, Computer Science has one of the highest graduate unemployment rates of any degree course.

In Holywood they make a film about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, in Britain we have “The IT Crowd”.  They are very few IT experts on the Boards of FTSE 250 companies: they are mostly dominated by accountants.

Would it be acceptable for a CEO or the Permanent Secretary of a government department in the UK to say they cannot read a balance sheet? Of course not – but they can still say “I don’t understand IT” and make a joke about sandals and bad hair.

In discussion many of the women there agreed that this really matters because it conditions attitudes to IT as a profession and to the role of technology in business and society.

Topic No 3: The UK IT Skills Crisis

I have gone on about this problem before on this blog, but a reduction of more than 50% in students studying Computing at A Level and a fall in UK resident applications for Higher Education Technology courses of 44% in the last decade say it all.

The UK IT industry is ageing with the number under 30 at less than 1 in 5 now, and over 50s doubled.  Again this is not the case in other countries who compete with us.

In discussion, we agreed that the unattractive image of IT in the UK and the low status of IT in schools and colleagues were a large part of the reason.  There was great enthusiasm for the new GCSE that e-Skills and others are developing, which will offer school students real programming challenges and opportunities to apply technology to solving real-world problems.

Topic 4: The Gender Imblance in UK IT

As is well known, there is a shocking gender imbalance in UK IT and it’s getting worse.  Only 18% of IT and telecommunications professionals are women.  And only 8% of A Level candidates and 15% of applicants for university IT courses are female.

We discussed why – and, again, image and perception matter here.  Several of the attendees had participated in CC4G (Computer Clubs for Girls) and similar initiatives to encourage girls to keep on IT as an option.

There was general agreement round the table that role models mattered. So remember Ada Lovelace Day this October – what should we be doing to mark the occasion and to raise the profile of women in technology?

So, having urged  everyone to get stuck into social media, I have done my duty and posted these topics. I look forward to your thoughts in return.

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

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