by Christine Hodgson

Sense and Sensibility

Feb 28, 2011
CareersIT Leadership

Given that IT has always been heavily male-dominated, the topic of gender balance in the workplace surely cannot be ignored by the UK’s CIO community. Especially at a time when economic recovery is starting to get under way and skills shortages are beginning to reappear.

We started this series of opinion pieces two years ago with an article on the same subject headed ‘Where have all the women gone?’ The article noted that the number of women coming forward for IT jobs seemed to be in decline. It offered reasons why this situation was creating real problems for CIOs, and suggested some possible solutions.

Today I am happy to note that things have changed for the better and are again moving in right direction, albeit not enough and too slowly.

One factor that has helped has been much prodding and campaigning by think-tanks and pressure groups. Business in the Community (BiTC) with its Opportunity Now gender campaign and Women in Technology have done excellent work. And closer to home, my own company’s Women’s Business Network has expanded from occasional informal get-togethers when it was founded a few years ago to a programme of year-round events with distinguished guest speakers, forums and its own dedicated website.

But the main factor is surely self-interest on the part of businesses and their CIOs, and the solid business benefits of maximising their pipeline of upcoming talent. After all, why cut yourself off from half the nation’s talent pool? There is also the important question of balanced teams with breadth of perspective. Mixed gender teams bring a greater range of outlooks and insights than all-male ones, and that can be especially important when your users and customers, direct or indirect, also comprise women as well as men.

Recruitment is the sense part of the equation. Sensibility comes in when you look at promotion and career progression. Sensibility refers to an acute perception of or responsiveness toward something, such as the emotions of another.

My experience, based on our 8000-strong IT workforce, has taught me that managers lacking this quality can have real problems in getting the best out of their staff, male or female. It has also taught me that there are genuine differences of approach to many types of task between men and women in the workplace, and these differences must be respected, not ignored.

Women in general are not foremost at self-promotion, and in a world that often takes people at face value, their contribution can easily be under-valued in comparison with their more self confident male colleagues. Assertiveness is also an issue.

Anne Robinson is exaggerating when she says that women ‘go and cry in the loo’ after a dispute at work, rather than shouting back, but for sure women are more likely to avoid confrontation. If you lack the sensibility to appreciate such factors, you could easily end up rewarding and promoting men at the expense of quieter but abler women – to the overall detriment of your department.

Giving women in IT a fair chance also means looking at practical issues such as flexible working or working from home. It would surely be ironic not to deploy these IT-enabled ideas in the IT workplace. And without them, women with children might find it hard to return to work, further reducing your supply of talent.

It is combining sense and sensibility that, in my view, will achieve a healthier gender balance in IT, and not the imposition of artificial quotas. I am pleased to see that Lord Davies’ recently published report, in the different context of big-company boardrooms, has stopped short of imposing quotas.

While I believe that setting targets can create a focus and drive for change, I don’t believe that forcing quotas is the most appropriate way of increasing the number of women in the boardroom – or in IT. Any professional wants to climb the career ladder based on the recognition of skill, talent and determination, not because management feel obliged to meet quotas.

I am proud of Capgemini’s achievement of 26 per cent female representation, but all this has been achieved via recruitment and promotion on merit not gender, and in a culture which, I am confident, combines sense and sensibility — and emphatically rejects quotas.

My recommendation to CIOs who want to access the whole talent pool, male and female, build the best pipeline of managers for the future is simple. Forget about quotas but do think about setting your own targets.

And make sure you foster support and mentoring systems, and create an environment in which women as well as men can succeed on their own merit and with their own style.

The full report by Lord Davies can be found at: independent review into Women on Boards. (PDF, 1.9 Mb)

Christine Hodgson is chairman of Capgemini UK

Pic: IISGcc2.0