Engaging more women in ITS, and ensuring that women who enter the ITS profession stay on, is key not just to equality but also to help plug the skills shortage opening up in many countries. “Less than 10% of those who participate in ITS (UK) are women. A lot more than 10% of the concerns voiced within our membership are related to the problem of recruiting and retaining staff in the ITS sector. We need to do much better at recruiting from the whole potential workforce to overcome this problem.”
– Jennie Martin ITS UK
The question of how to make ITS a sustainable career choice for a potentially untapped workforce was discussed at the 9th ITS European Congress in a Special Stakeholder session in Dublin where participants had to opportunity to discuss and hear successful women ITS professionals share their views and ideas on the topic.
We take this opportunity to exchange with Jennie Martin (Secretary General, ITS United Kingdom and Spokesperson for the Women in ITS Interest Group, to get her reflections on session, to learn more about the WITS forum, to gather ideas on how to make ITS a sustainable career choice for an ‘untapped’ pool of talent and of course, to gain insight from her experiences as a successful woman in the ITS field.
-Tell us more about WITS. When was it founded, what are its mission and initiatives?
WITS is the ITS (UK) group for those who wish to see more women recruited to working in ITS, and better retention rates of women once they have joined the sector. Men are very welcome in WITS since they are just as interested in having a well qualified and stable work force as women are. WITS was founded in 2009 and has grown a lot in size and influence since then.
-Do you see it mainly as a support structure for its members or as platform that could possibly impact the image of the ITS field ?
The human image of the ITS field is very much that of men of a certain age in grey suits, as any ITS Congress delegate can testify. In order to attract the best young people into our field, a more diverse and dare I say exciting image will help, and the work of the various women in ITS groups has the potential to achieve this. Having a support structure is important, but the true aim has to be to actually bring about some changes.
-Would you say that it is a priority of WITS to communicate the underrepresentation of women in ITS to a wide audience? Is there a need for advocacy in the ITS field?
When it comes to advocacy, the most important task of WITS is to establish and communicate the needs of women as ITS users in a well researched and argued way. Since nearly all designers of ITS are male, it is reasonable to assume that the needs of women are not always taken into detailed account.
-Tell us more about the organization of the session, who were the guest speakers and what did they bring to the table?
We had Natalia de Estevan Ubeda who is a senior manager at Transport for London, Gertraud Oberzaucher who has done excellent work to promote women in ITS in Austria, and Rachelle Mulder who is a respected ITS specialist with Arup in Ireland. Their professional successes and experiences as women in ITS together created a really interesting session. I must also mention the audience, equally made up of men and women, whose comments were also very illuminating. The session continued the process of using the Congresses to highlight this important topic
-On the whole, do you interpret the existing skills shortage and the challenges in recruiting and maintaining staff in the ITS field?
In too many European countries, any engineering profession is not regarded as an exciting career by young people. Add to that the reluctance of girls to consider it as being a male option, and it is clear why changing the image of ITS as a field of work is a priority for all of us. It is exciting and rewarding and it is very suitable for women – we need to keep putting this across.
-How can recruitment avenues and processes be evaluated to gain access to a broader range of candidates?
Speaking mainly about the UK, where my experience lies, the problem is not so much at initial recruitment. It comes earlier, as teenage girls discard technical and engineering options, and then reappears later when the few women who do join these professions, typically leave after ten years or so and do not return. We need to influence girls, and we need to influence employers at that point where women seem to feel that the work is not compatible with the other things they want to achieve in their lives, such as having main responsibility for bringing up a family.
-What do you see as being the main reasons for why there are so few women in ITS? Is it because traditionally there continue to be fewer women than men choosing scientific/technical studies or are there more complex reasons that need to be considered?
For example, even if there are fewer women in Engineering studies according to a report on the BBC 1 out of 2 female engineering graduates will enter the field, compared to 7 out of 10 of their male counterpart despite the fact that (in the UK) there is an 85% chance of finding paid work within 6 months of finishing the programme!
A common argument used when adressing the skills shortage in ITS (and in engineering in general) is that a more diverse workforce must be recruited at entry level. But considering that very few women reach high level and managerial positions upon entering the field could be interpreted as indication that retention and lack of advancement possibilities are equally important issues.
As before: in Europe, girls do not choose technical subjects even as early as in secondary schooling, and women around 30 tend to leave if they joined in the first place. Schools can influence pupils choices, and employers can influence the choices of women who should be entering the second stages of their careers, not leaving the profession at that point.
-As a successful ITS professional would you agree that mid-career level is the most critical juncture on the technical ladder? Why or why not?
It is for women, as in most European countries it coincides with the time when family responsibilities tend to take up more time and effort. The employer needs to help at this time, by being flexible about hours and location – but not by expecting less work, obviously!
-Do you believe that companies wishing to benefit from gender diversity need integrate strategies to revamp not only the recruitment practices, but ensure the advancement of technical women through the highest levels of the organisation? How?
If you get your recruitment and retention strategies right, the very senior levels will work out as well. Not everybody, male or female, wants those very demanding top jobs. As long as the first stages of the career structure are fairly organised, the top jobs will also be fairly allocated.
-Do you see a need to encourage more women to study engineering, or encourage professionals who have no engineering degree to receive training on ITS? Is this a need or are there other avenues that could be taken in order increase the breadth of the potential candidate pool?
IT is not women we need to encourage, it is girls 13-16. If we can alert them to the benefits of a technical career, we will have succeeded in building an ITS work force representative of society.
-What kind of measures could be put into place in order to make a more diverse workforce a reality?
(How does the concept of the workforce need to be rethought, what kinds of values need to be re-evaluated, and which workplace practices and cultures need to be reviewed to take into account the needs of diverse workfoce in order to ensure longterm sustainable benefits for the field?)
It is the quality of work that matters, not the hours you are present, the number of flights you take in a week, what you are wearing while doing that work, whether you go for a beer after work or not, or how many rounds of golf you get in with clients – everybody should be judged simply on whether their work is good. This will be just as beneficial to men as to women in the ITS work force!