Women and Computing: The Ethical Responsibility of the IT Industry

Niki Panteli, Janet Stack, Malcolm Atkinson and Harvie Ramsey


Given the explosive growth of the IT market over the last decades and the industry’s skills shortage, IT employees constitute an increasingly vital component of the labour force. It is therefore of significant importance for organisations in this industry to use all potential resources in the best possible way. In this paper we will report on and analyse the state of women in IT occupations in the UK.The issue of gender imbalance in the IT workforce provides a focus for this research, at a time when there is a declining representation of women in the IT industry.

Although there has been an increase in the number of women entering IT occupations since the seventies, women are under-represented in all member states of the European Union. This is an industry that has been predominantly white, middle-class and male-dominated. Men in general are more likely to be seen as the designers, developers and managers of systems whereas women are seen as the users of these systems (Grundy, 1996). In no member state of the European Union is the proportion of women in the IT workforce estimated to be above 30 per cent and in most cases the share is closer to 20 per cent.

The UK in particular has been experiencing the worst decline in the proportion of women in the IT sector (Social Europe, S3/93). In the 1980s, women accounted for a quarter of the workforce in the IT industry in the UK (Orldroyd, 1996). Since the early 1990s the average proportion of females in IT has ranged between 20% to 22%, falling to 19% in 1993, and this is during a period when women account for about 45% of the UK labour force (UK Labour Force Statistics, 1991).

During this same period, the IT industry is growing faster in the UK than in Europe. In 1995, the UK market for software and computing services increased by 18% experiencing its fastest growth in real terms for a decade. The overall turnover of the companies in this sector has grown by 22 % and further growth is expected. This growth has resulted in an increasing demand for IT skills. According to a recent survey by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, which contains an analysis of about 8000 graduate vacancies over a two year period, more than a fifth of all advertised posts were for work in IT and management information(The Scotsman, Recruitment, June 13, 1997, p.45). Also, according to a recent report commissioned jointly by the Scottish Software Federation and the government, there are 33,000 unfilled IT jobs in the UK, with around 10 % of these in Scotland (The Herald, July 16, 1997, p.24). Many of these are for people with previous relevant experience.

Our study identifies that even though the IT industry does not exclude women it does little to promote them or even retain them in the field. In this paper we will discuss the ethical responsibility of the IT industry with regard to gender issues in this sector, so that women are not only users of systems but can influence the development of systems as well. IT organisations have a responsibility to discover and utilise innovative and effective ways to retain and develop experienced IT staff. Furthermore, we suggest the introduction of a Professional Code of Ethics to be followed in the training and development of IT staff which would include gender specific issues.

Although there are several professional standards of this sort (e.g. the Professional Development Scheme (PDS) introduced in 1989 by the British Computer Society and the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) initiative by IDPM), these remain gender-neutral. As a result, PDS and CPD provide a code of practice treating IT employees and their needs as homogeneous. Our UK-based study however has shown marked gender differences in career progression and development. Nation-wide statistical analysis highlights areas of difference which our case study based research investigates further, revealing possible causes. Similar findings were identified in the US-based study (Wright, 1997). In the light of these findings we are in a position to make recommendations for a gender inclusive code of practice.

The paper argues that professional training and development schemes should be comprehensive enough to incorporate the needs of IT female staff with family responsibilities. They should therefore include a training programme for women returning from maternity leave, as well as a career development programme for staff, mainly again women, who work on a part-time or flexi-time scheme. Innovative uses of technology to assist flexible work patterns need to be explored and encouraged.

The value of a more diverse work-force needs to be realised: “… the fact that many of those organizations which are most imaginative in their use of IT to meet commercial objectives and/or consumer needs have a higher than average proportion of women in post suggest that the others are seriously losing out” (IDPM 1996, p.50). Our research points the way for this to be enabled, to maximise use of human potential.