Leading the Way – A Woman’s Journey Through IT | By Lee Carnihan

EU-It-skillsChristine Bakewell is different. Good different. She is one of the 17% of women working in IT. And she not only works in it, she’s had, and still has, a very successful career in it for over two decades. She’s an independent IT management consultant helping a huge variety of different companies in the UK, and internationally, to understand their IT and make it more efficient and effective from a business and operational perspective.

You won’t find her sat in a darkened room somewhere in the basement, or buying a server, or writing code, or running a penetration test. Instead you’ll find her taking a long hard look at how a company uses IT to run its business and deliver a service. Christine communicates with a huge array of people at many different levels throughout a company, right from the person who buys the servers, configures the laptops, and manages the network and security, to the Finance Director who may be signing off the cheque. Oh, she also works with the people who may be using the equipment on a daily basis to get things done.

The principal parts of the job involve building up a picture of a company’s IT infrastructure; figuring out how it all works and the problems it faces; then putting forward ways to fix the problems and make the system better than before. From management to interns, from the top of the building to the bottom, from Windows to wifi, this is about process and strategic thinking, not gadgets or gizmos.

In spite of women like Christine obviously doing a very good job, being well-respected and enjoying being a part of the IT industry, most women, especially those who are at the stage of choosing which career path to pursue, seemingly still don’t see IT as a viable and rewarding industry to work in. Christine sees it in the lack of women she encounters on a daily basis but thinks there’s no good reason for it.

“IT is the single most rewarding field I can think of. IT reaches into every corner of every company around the globe. There is no other industry like it in terms of its depth and breadth. That’s the reason I enjoy it: the variety of opportunity.”

Another reason I suspect why women may not be considering IT as a potential career is because it is still perceived to be about the gizmos and gadgets – boys toys! Let’s face facts, IT is still thought of as being all about the hardware and software i.e. about creating, installing or configuring things like hard drives, antivirus, security health checks, and USB keys. But the technology is only one aspect of what IT is all about. There’s a whole other dimension that simply isn’t on the radar: governance, logistics, and strategy i.e. defining and deciding policy, and managing how business can use IT to deliver a commercial advantage and better business performance.

The other thing of course fuelling the perception of IT as a male-dominated industry is the lack of female success stories in the media. How long have we been hearing about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – forever and a day! But what about the women? When we do hear about them the story is usually framed from the point of view that it’s interesting and newsworthy because it’s still the exception to the rule to see a woman being so successful in IT. That has to change – the media need to set the record straight because women haven’t just emerged onto the scene, they’ve been there right from the start! When Charles Babbage first invented his difference
engine in the mid 1800s, the first algorithm for it was written by a woman: Ada Lovelace. And again more recently in the 1940s, Grace Hopper developed the first “compiler” – a computer programme that translates other programmes – and coined the term “debugging”.

Until the everyday narrative changes, women may remain unconvinced IT is a female-friendly industry, or that it has the opportunities and rewards they desire.

What we need is for women to become the new rule and not the exception!

It’s not just about creating a new rule for the sake of it either, there is a very strong economic incentive: a recent survey estimated the economy would receive a massive boost – to the tune of billions – if more women entered IT.”

So what happened in Christine’s case? How did she become the exception to the rule? Why did she choose IT? Was it even a conscious decision or more down to luck? And what can other women learn from her experience and how could they apply it to their own situation and career aspirations? The first thing Christine will tell you is that it wasn’t a straightforward career path.

“I started my career as a chemical engineer having studied that as a degree. My first job was with Courtaulds Research for 18 months. I actually wanted to do a degree in Computer Studies with French, but the school timetable couldn’t accommodate me doing French with maths and physics so I ended up doing chemistry as my third A level. I did an O level in computer studies in my lower sixth and found it boring. This put me off doing a degree in computing, hence the change of plan. Curiously though while I was working at Courtaulds I heard through a friend about a small dynamic IT company called Miles 33 who were looking for graduates who could speak a European language. I got a job with them and ended up where I had wanted to be 6 years earlier!”

So the problem of how to get more women interested and into IT could be solved in part by the industry and academia promoting the fact you don’t have to have studied computer science or programming to consider a career in IT: skills and knowledge from other subjects and work experience are needed and transferrable. And if the media can continue to make a lot of positive noise about women’s successes then students might be more inclined to go for IT. Christine also thinks the generation studying and entering the workplace now have an in-built advantage if they do want to get into IT precisely because they are totally au fait with technology – it’s an ever present part of their life right from birth. For them there is no shock of the technological new.

And let’s not forget the fundamental question that always needs answering: why should a young woman – any woman in fact – choose a career in IT? What does it have to offer them? The Head of IT for the Bloodhound Supersonic Car project, Sarah Covell, makes it very clear:

“IT is one of the most rewarding careers – don’t get me wrong, at times it can be a bit of a challenge, but when you find the answer you’re looking for and you resolve the problem, to me, it’s the best feeling in the world! Unfortunately I think there is a bit of stereotype when it comes to people who work in ‘IT’ – but that is changing. The IT industry is growing all the time – there are so many job opportunities available and it is an industry in which I really think both women and men can excel in!”

So the simple answer is… an immense amount of opportunity!

Almost every company on the planet uses IT so that means a young woman could find herself working in practically any country in the world, in almost any industry, be it architecture, management consultancy, tourism, finance, healthcare, or the intelligence service and so on. The list is almost endless.

And Christine and Sarah aren’t the only woman leading the way either. There are now some very high profile women IT champions that young women can learn from and aspire to emulate: Merissa Mayer (CEO Yahoo), Padmasree Warrior (Chief Technology & Strategy Officer of Cisco ), Meg Whitman (CEO Hewlett Packard), Sarah Covell (Head of IT, Bloodhound Supersonic Car), and Dr Sue Black (Cheeky Geek, Social Entrepreneur, Disrupter, Speaker and Mum).

Working in IT doesn’t mean you’re going to be shut away in a dark room somewhere in the depths of a faceless building soldering a circuit board or writing computer code or plugging in printers and photocopiers. Instead, you could very easily find yourself working on the next generation of supersonic car and breaking world records!

Who wouldn’t want a career like that?

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