Career Advice Working Women

Sparking change

Microsoft HK and Women’s Foundation launch scheme to get more women into IT

Microsoft Hong Kong and The Women’s Foundation have joined forces to roll out the first ever GirlSpark Programme in order to encourage more females to consider joining the information technology (IT) sector.

The three-day leadership camp and competition, held from January 7 to 9, aims to address a serious gender gap in the IT sector – while men and women are equal users of computer technology in today’s digitalised world, few women go down the IT path when it comes to choosing careers. From building business plans for a new tablet to attending lectures and networking with senior peers, students participating in the scheme had a chance to immerse themselves in the IT world and discover much more about it.

The latest statistics from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department show that over 75 per cent of those in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector are male. Last year, no females enrolled on the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s (HKUST) BSc in Computer Science or BEng in Computer Science (Information Engineering) undergraduate programmes.

Added to this, a survey by the Women’s Foundation found that across 57 IT departments at companies in Hong Kong, 88 per cent of IT directors were male. Women, meanwhile, represented less than 10 per cent of staff at more than half of these companies.

“Women are significantly under-represented in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects in Hong Kong in terms of studies and career options, due in large part to entrenched gender stereotypes and cultural attitudes,” says Su-mei Thompson, chief executive at The Women’s Foundation.

She explains that there are several reasons why women are not joining the IT sector. These include cultural attitudes about the relative aptitude of men and women in IT and engineering, a lack of exposure to future employers for IT jobs, a lack of understanding of possible career paths, an absence of female role models and mentors, and an absence of networking with female peers.

Vaishnavi Kaushik, a second-year marketing and economics student at HKUST, strongly agrees. “In all honesty, [IT] was an industry I never looked into. Not many girls I knew were into it, and obviously my peer group influences what I think. I initially thought it was more suited to guys,” she says.

Part of the reason why the GirlSpark Programme was created was to help debunk these myths. “There’s a perception that IT is not an interesting industry – sitting in a backroom with no social life – but these perceptions are wrong,” says Horace Chow, general manager at Microsoft Hong Kong. “It is a very colourful industry; it’s not just limited to the technical. Of course, programming is a very important piece of that technology, but we have marketing, sales and business operational functions. People can move around.”

Thompson says programming is “the perfect job for women who are planning to start a family or are mothers, because you can do it independently at home, during flexible hours”.

Current statistical trends in the US show that the under-representation of women in IT means that the sector will only fill half of its available jobs by 2018. In Hong Kong, the IT sector grew by 5 per cent between 2012 and 2013, yet the vacancy rate was about 4 per cent.

“These jobs are going unfilled,” Thompson stresses. She and Chow agree that tackling the under-representation of women in the IT sector requires a concerted effort by parents, academia, the government, businesses and NGOs.

“Most kids in Hong Kong listen to their parents when it comes to the choice of academic subjects and careers. We need parents, as well as the girls themselves, to see science and computers as girl-friendly and to understand the many rewarding career pathways that studying computer sciences can lead to,” Thompson says.

Businesses play a big part, and this is why programmes such as GirlSpark are so important. “The GirlSpark programme allows tertiary youth and female students more chance to gain an understanding of ICT, and more chance to understand the real world of technology,” Chow says.

While the current female employment situation in IT seems dire, interest in GirlSpark shows there is hope. While only 51 spots were available, there were more than 200 applicants for this year’s programme. Students came from different backgrounds, universities, countries and disciplines. According to Chow, the selected participants “are a very good representation of the next generation of our female task force”.

Kaushik says: “I thought [the programme] was heavily centred on technicality and actually knowing how to use a computer and [do] programming – everything that’s more technical and guy-suited. That was a misconception, for sure. It’s basically like any other industry, where there are opportunities for everyone. Technology plays a big role in everything. It’s nice to know there’s room for someone like me, a girl, to join.”

The success of this year’s programme has ensured its continuation and Chow offers a few tips for those interested in joining next year’s programme. “We’re not looking for one type of person; it’s not the person who speaks the loudest that gets picked,” he says. “We are looking for people who are passionate about the programme and willing to be in a team. We seek creativity. Ambition is also very important – it’s a demanding industry and there’s a lot of competition.”


Su-Mei Thompson states why female involvement is essential to the IT industry

Technology creation “If you look at the distribution of functions or types of job that women in IT perform, there are very few involved in the creation of technology, as opposed to systems maintenance. This is important. Let’s not overlook the fact that women are major users of technology – 53 per cent of game-players are women, but more complex games are designed by men to appeal to men.”
Skills shortage “Employers face a huge skills shortage in IT and technology-related jobs. In the US, it is estimated that if current trends continue in terms of the under-representation of women, the industry will only fill half its available jobs by 2018.”
Economic future “There’s a real gender gap, and if Hong Kong is going to thrive in the broad economy, more women need to enter this field.”