This article is part of our special report e-Skills.
SPECIAL REPORT / The European Commission in June plans to publish a survey explaining why Europe’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector has too few women despite a projected deficit of 700,000 skilled workers by 2015.
Some 7 million people work in the European digital sector, which creates around 120,000 new jobs every year, but women comprise 30% of the workforce and many of them are in junior roles.
The European Commission will use the survey to launch an attempt to reverse this trend and to encourage young people, particularly women, to take up an ICT-related career.
“My motto, my dream, my bumper sticker is to get every European digital and my ambition is to get more women into ICT,” said Neelie Kroes, the EU's Digital Agenda Commissioner.
Creating the right conditions
Edyta Ziomek, a Commission policy officer, told EURACTIV that one reason women are not strong in the sector is the total number of computer science graduates in Europe is diminishing, and women tend to choose other career types such as law or medicine.
"Moreover, even those that have a degree in computer science or a similar area will sometimes afterwards pursue a career in a different field. This phenomenon is called a 'leaking pipeline'," Ziomek said.
"However, the success stories of ICT products and services like Angry Birds, Skype, GSM standards and the SMS show that ICT development requires a lot of creativity. Maybe this ingredient can make the ICT studies and careers more appealing also to women," she added.
Attracting more women into ICT jobs will not just help address a demographic imbalance that risks damaging the whole economy, according to the Commission, it will also contribute to realising equal opportunities and empower women to shape the information society.
Ziomek said that the work-life balance also explains why few women choose a career in ICT, but this issue is not specific to the ICT sector.
"Wherever you find a bigger number of women engineers, you typically have a particular educational system that encourages females to consider ICT jobs as a valid career choice, a longstanding tradition of women working in the technology field, and a certain mindset that highlights a sense of possibility for women working in ICT," Ziomek said.
The Commission’s study – led by DG Connect – will aim to “quantify the cost of women lagging behind in ICT careers on the basis of hard data," Ziomek said. "We want to make a business case for gender diversity in the ICT sector and show what it can mean for economies and women's income levels."
Role models needed
Tiphaine Dalmas, a software engineer with Aethys in Edinburgh, told EURACTIV that the encouragement and the opportunities in the sector could be improved in order to attract women.
"There is also a lack of female role models, and variety in those role models," Dalmas said, adding that sexism remains an issue, with pressure and derogatory remarks from male colleagues, and lower pay for women doing the equivalent jobs of men.
Dalmas stressed that the ICT sector does have an image problem with the stereotypical notion that it's only for ‘geeky guys’.
"The nerd argument implies the counter-stereotype: that women are put off by all things ‘nerdy’ to start with, or worse that they actually need colourful fluff to be attracted to a work environment," Dalmas said.
Dalmas said women could bring ‘their brains’ to the ICT sector.
"I sometimes hear arguments such about [women’s] programming and management style: that women are more communicative and 'nurturing'," Dalmas said, "but I'm yet to see any serious study that shows that women are making a very gender-specific contribution to the field."
Companies make use of best practises
The Commission wants the industry to recognise that female talent cannot be overlooked if European companies think seriously about innovation.
“Women should shape the future world that new technologies will be transforming at a dizzying speed,” said a Commission spokesman.
Private companies in the ICT sector, including Google, HP, Panasonic and Microsoft, are now developing initiatives to ensure greater participation of women in their businesses. Together, they have proposed a Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT that reflects recent positive developments and seeks to be a rallying point for others wishing to support and promote greater participation of women in the sector.
The code covers different areas such as education, recruitment, career development, and return to work after leave.
In schools, the stakeholders want to break stereotypes and emphasise the attractiveness of the ICT sector. At university level, it emphasises encouraging female students who have opted for ICT-related studies to continue in their chosen field.
When they start working within the sector, it’s important to retain and promote them by persuading them that there are good career prospects and by enhancing their potential. After leave, they should be encouraged to return to the sector.