Lack of women doesn’t compute

Lack of women doesn’t compute

Ailsa Symeonides is one of a beleaguered minority. As co-founder and marketing director of a leading Scottish software company, she is one of just a handful of women to hold a top job in the UK information technology field. 


Eight years ago, 30 per cent of IT professionals in the UK were female. Today just 22 per cent of the country’s 1 million strong IT workforce are women. Recent research suggests that just five per cent of young women are considering whether to have a career in IT, let alone following this path. 


"Information technology has a geeky image," says Symeonides, with the sort of realism which no doubt helped her take Axios Systems, the helpdesk and IT service management company she formed with her husband, Tasos, in 1988, to a global turnover of £10 million this year. 


"People have this perception that it is a job for people with no interpersonal skills, and that all IT professionals do is sit at a screen typing in codes all day. 


"Nothing could be further from the truth. IT is one of the most dynamic, creative, people-orientated industries you could work in today," she says. 


So where are all the women? 


Symeonides is not the only person concerned about the lack of women in IT. According to e-skills UK, the government-backed agency that was formerly known as the National Training Organization, the UK IT manpower requirement is set to double over the next five years, with a further 1 million IT professionals needed by 2007. 


With unemployment at a 30-year low, and IT’s increasing impact on almost every aspect of our daily lives, the industry and the government agree that attracting more women into IT is going to play a key role in plugging the recruitment gap. 


Officials at e-skills are so concerned that they have launched Image Project, aimed at tackling women’s negative perception of IT, and have just appointed Alexandra Tickle, UK MD of Flipside Europe, the pan-European online gaming company, as a role model for the campaign. 


Symeonides is running her own campaign to help redress the gender imbalance. Last year she set up the 'A' Star awards to reward excellence in IT by young women. The 12 women who score the highest marks in Scottish Advanced Higher computing or A-Level computing, are invited to enter the competition, which sets IT tasks, such as designing a web page. 


Symeonides says the scheme was born out of frustration at the poor image of the industry among the young friends of her daughter, Tara, 19, who is studying computing at Cambridge University. 


She says: "In her college there are only two girls doing computing, and I think that says it all. Tara was very frustrated that her friends seemed to think IT was just for stereotypical geeks and would not even contemplate it as a career. The industry needs a complete image revamp among women, and the 'A' Stars are my way of contributing to that." 


Although Symeonides was delighted to receive enthusiastic backing and co-operation from the six principal exam-awarding bodies, she was surprised to discover that her scheme was the first aimed specifically at women. 


"Here everyone is saying that we need to attract more women, so we were amazed when we asked around and found ours was the first competition of its kind," she says. 


"I suppose it’s a bit frustrating that it has to be someone in the industry who does it - after all, my core business here needs me. But if it improves the image of IT for women, then it will have achieved what it was designed to do." 


Educated at Trinity Academy, Edinburgh, Symeonides was on a gap year before university and contemplating a career in nutritional medicine when fate unexpectedly took her into IT. 


After meeting her husband on a number 79 bus while on her way to work in a bank, she gave up her plans for university in favor of marriage and motherhood. With a degree in computing and an MSc in statistics, it was while working as head of IT for retail systems at John Menzies, that Tasos Symeonides realized there was a gap in the market for IT helpdesk software. 


In 1988 he left his job and the couple set up Axios Systems in the spare bedroom of their home near Dalkeith. 


Along with a former John Menzies colleague Symeonides developed "assyst", a software program that allows clients to manage and control their IT systems, log and track incidents and uncover the causes of underlying problems. His wife concentrated on marketing, and is now marketing and sales director of the company. 


Today Axios Systems has offices in the United States, Paris, Toronto, Munich and Utrecht, employs 110 people and is still owned and managed by the Symeonides. 


Those who adhere to the stereotypical image of IT professionals, particularly women, would change their minds on meeting Ailsa Symeonides. Seated in the boardroom of Axios’s imposing premises in a Georgian Terrace in Edinburgh’s West End, there is nothing of the geek about her. 


With shoulder-length blonde hair, she looks casually chic in a black sweater and gray silk chiffon scarf. She is effervescent and down-to-earth, and obviously a good communicator. "IT is all about people, not machines, and IT is a business at the end of the day, and needs all the skills any business does," says Symeonides. 


"I think women tend to be more inclined towards creative, people-orientated jobs, and we need to show them that IT is full of jobs like this. 


"Marketing, PR, sales skills, support services - these are all people jobs which have you sitting in front of a screen all day. But web design and graphics are extremely creative. So why aren’t we attracting more women?" 


Why indeed? Place any five-year-old, girl or boy, in front of a computer screen, and they will appear equally enthralled. But by the time they have completed their education, only a fraction of girls will hold computing qualifications, even though they are out-performing the boys when it comes to results at Standard grade and at Advanced Higher grade. 


According to the Scottish executive, just 41 girls took computing at Advanced Higher last year, compared with 299 boys. Just over 90 per cent of girls passed the exam, compared to just over 80 per cent of boys. Only 1,673 women are currently studying IT in higher education in Scotland, compared with 6,015 men. 


If the computer industry is seeking help from the Scottish executive in promoting its case, it will be disappointed. A spokesman for the executive points out that it has a policy of not promoting any one subject over any other subject, in line with its philosophy that pupils should make their own decisions on which subjects they want to be qualified in. 


But he adds: "No subject should be seen as gender biased and it is the responsibility of schools to make all pupils, both girls and boys, aware of the benefits of every subject. And it is clear from the pass rates for computing at Standard grade and Higher level, that girls and boys are equally able." 


So why is the message not getting through to young women that IT can be an interesting, creative career? 


Anne Cantelo, the project director of e-skills UK, believes things start to go wrong in the early years of secondary school, for boys and girls. 


"Young children have can have very sophisticated e-skills that they have learnt on the computer at home. Then, when they start computer studies at school aged 11, they are shown how to word process," Cantelo says. 


"It is now recognized that IT studies in the early years have not been interesting enough and that is being addressed through the national curriculum. 


"We are working on introducing exciting and creative software such as Adobe Photoshop to show children that IT can be creative." 


Cantelo says that popular culture and news events must also take some of the blame for downgrading IT in the public image, and has spoken to BBC drama officials about reversing this trend. 


She says: "If there is a television sitcom with a character who is pale-faced, with bad clothes and no people skills, they will make him an IT professional." 


The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) is equally concerned about the gender imbalance in IT and has backed Symeonides’s 'A' Star awards. 


Julie Mellor, the chairwoman of the EOC, says: "We would like to see more women as computing professionals as it’s an area where they can do particularly well. It’s important that we make sure they are kept positive about IT from an early age so that when the time comes to make decisions about their futures, this kind of career is still valid option." 


Ailsa Symeonides is hopeful that the image of IT will change for all students, but particularly young women whom she believes have particular skills to bring to the workplace. 


She says: "I think it is natural to have a balance of males and females in the workplace - that’s the way life is. I think women are more intuitive. They don’t just look at the facts, they use their feelings, too. Often Tasos will say to me: ‘Come on, tell me your gut feeling, you are usually right.’ Every business can use a skill like that." 


In the lap of success 


ONE woman who does not need to be persuaded that information technology can offer exciting and well paid careers is Tracy Wallace of Ayr. 


Wallace, 18, was last year’s Scottish winner of the Axios’s 'A' Star awards after she gained the second highest mark in Scotland in her computing studies Advanced Higher. Her win secured her £250 and a lap top. 


A former pupil of Queen Margaret Academy, Ayr, Wallace is now in her first year of a degree in computing at Glasgow University. 


She says: "I was ten when my family got our first computer and it was more a toy than anything else. I didn’t really think about working in IT then, but when I got to secondary school and started computer studies I found I was good at it. 


"Our school made computers fun. It taught us things that we could use every day at school and in other lessons. For example: word processing to help with our essays and Excel software so we could make graphs. I used them a lot and it made us aware that computers are part of everyday life and that whatever job we ended up in we would end up using computers one way or another. It gave you a sense of control because you could apply your skills to other projects. 


"I think IT has had a bit of a geeky image among girls - just about 20 per cent of people on my course are girls. I think people don’t see it as glamorous or impressive. For example: a lot of girls I know are interested in law or medicine. It’s this feeling that if you are a doctor, you’ve made it," Wallace explains. 


"Some people also think you have to be super-smart to do computing, but that’s not true, it’s like any other subject, you learn the basics and go on from there. 


"I’d like to go into IT as a career. Maybe in IT public relations, just because you’re in computers you don’t have to be behind the screen programming all day. 


"I’m also interested in developing software that can help solve problems. For example, helping hospitals keep track of supplies. It would also be good to do something in education. I like the idea of going into a classroom and pupils telling me what sort of problems they are having with particular subjects and see if we can use computers to help them solve them. 


"People think that IT is about computers and machines, but it’s really a people thing, and I know that if you do well you can easily be looking at a salary of £70,000 or more."