The IT industry as a whole is a male dominated environment where there is a chronic problem with the recruitment and retention of women. The number of women working in technology roles range from 33% to less than 20%, according to statistics from Women in IT Forum, 2002. Studies have shown that whilst the number of women entering higher education is continuing to increase, the number of women embarking on a career in financial technology is decreasing.
The financial services IT industry conjures up a double negative for most women. On the one side it is characterised by the geeky image of the IT crowd; and on the other, the competitive, stressful culture of the financial markets. It’s no wonder that there are fewer women in the financial services IT industry, especially at senior levels.
Carries Hartnell, programme manager at Intellect, a hi-tech industry trade association, says: “The image of our industry is still a negative one and, therefore, you don’t recruit enough women which would help to change the culture and the image. Women tend to have the softer skills that are used in business. Most companies will recognise that a diverse team of the different skills benefits their business.”
The financial industry is waking up to the fact that diversity in the workforce is a positive and necessary element in the competitive business environment. Women typically excel in key skills particularly important in customer, supplier and partner facing environments — communication, management and listening skills. Industry bodies, government and individual companies are now looking at creative ways in which to close the gender gap.
Government programmes, like the UK’s Computer Clubs for Girls, are a way to change the image of the IT industry at an early age. IBM participates in the national Take Our Daughters to Work Day, a scheme to promote an awareness of the diverse range of careers available to girls, as well as IBM MentorPlace which is a volunteer program for IBM employees who want to contribute their talents in local schools — virtually. The Women in IT Forum is currently focusing on teachers, lecturers and career advisors both at school and university to explore the opportunities within the industry beyond just the technical areas.
McGregor Boyall, a financial services recruitment firm, has developed womenintechnology, a new website that enables potential employees to apply directly to firms which have inclusive recruitment policies. Many financial institutions, such as Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Credit Suisse First Boston and the London Stock Exchange, are early participants which highlights their conscious decision to increase the number of female employees.
Womenintechnology also organises networking events. Maggie Berry, UK communications director, says: “Women want to come together in a situation where they can talk to other women experiencing the same issues as them, or just a chance to meet other women in technology — sometimes you might be the only woman in your team. To come along to an event like this is gold dust for many women.”
Many companies are also trying to attract and retain women by addressing the work-life balance to allow for a more flexible working environment, with flexi-time, staggered hours, time off in lieu, career breaks and more possibilities of job-sharing and part-time work. The remote access technical advances have aided flexibility.
Janet Lewis, senior vice president of global account management at SunGard, says: “You talk about technology — I think that tools such as the BlackBerry have actually enabled women to more effectively balance working from home. People can look at the disadvantages, but it is also an advantage to be able to be just as involved when you don’t have to be in a particular setting all the time.”
The shift in image has to go hand in hand with a culture shift within the workplace in order to increase the retention of women in financial services IT. An ex-technologist at a large US bank said that it was the pressurised, almost militaristic, culture of the IT side of the business that drove her out. “In financial services IT departments, you have to continually justify your existence because of the intense pressure to cut costs. That meant getting the project in on time and on budget, even if it wasn’t what was needed,” she says. She found that the creative side of IT, which she believes most women enjoy and excel at, was under-valued in this aggressive environment, so she turned to the business side of the bank to use her talents more effectively.
Although there are noticeably few women at the top of the financial IT ladder, whether the glass ceiling exists in the industry is a debatable issue. Another phenomenon has developed: the glass cliff. Berry explains: “What I have heard about is the glass cliff where women get given a high profile project because that is what they have asked for, but it’s a project that is almost doomed to failure.”
Giving women the support they need to succeed will increase the ability of firms to retain women. But women have a role to play within the process — they need to be able to articulate their career goals and their business plans. June Yee Felix, general manager of transactional solutions at IBM, comments: “One of the key things that women need to do in financial services or anywhere else is ensure that they take opportunities to speak publicly. This raises their visibility and it forces them to be very comfortable to speak on business and technology issues in a public forum.
“Building networks inside and outside your firm is a very important thing for women in technology to find — mentors, assistants, council — as well as advance their careers. It’s a general thing that men do naturally. I think women try to do a good job and think that just doing a good job, of itself, will get noticed, as opposed to ensuring that they can be recognised for significant and substantial contributors in broader domains,” she says.