You don’t have to look hard to realise there are far fewer women in the IT industry than men. And there was no better contrast than the events of last Friday.

Around 40 male hackers were milling around a secret London location, debating the latest developments. A short taxi ride away, a few hundred 11 to 15-year-old girls were arriving at the Science Museum to win prizes for building web sites.

The latter was ITbeat 2003, a government initiative to encourage more girls to consider careers in the IT industry. Run under the auspices of E-skills, an IT skills body supported by IBM, the department of trade and industry and the Science Museum, aims to promote IT among girls.

The music industry and pop artists with teen appeal have added their glamorous weight to tackle a serious problem. The number of female IT professionals in the UK has fallen to 22% over the past seven years, according to the department. This is not only a crisis for women in the industry, it’s a wider skills problem.

Research company IDC says that IT spending in the UK will create another 500,000 IT jobs by 2005, which implies we are heading for a large deficit of women and key IT workers overall.

Tosca Colangeli, of IBM, a sponsor of ITBeat, said the decision was taken to target the 11-15 age bracket because this is the time when decisions about careers tend to be made.

“We wanted to emphasise to girls that there is a huge variety of jobs in IT, and create a fun event to emphasise that,” she said. Elizabeth Varley, of, concurs:

“The public image of IT careers needs a shake-up so people realise that there are many, many different types of jobs in the industry and that they can be creative, rewarding and also fun.”

Only around 5% of young women consider the IT industry for a career, with most perceiving it as nerdy, even though girls who pick IT often excel. In 2001, about 32,000 boys passed an IT GCSE compared with 24,000 girls. However, girls tended to score a higher pass rate.

The competition, launched in November, was promoted through teen magazines and schools, and invited girls to design a website for their favourite pop star. Entrants and winners were invited to a slumber party hosted by TV presenter Kate Thornton at the Science Museum.

Milling around were role models from the IT industry, including Alison Hulme (Kiss FM DJ), Andrea Duffy (director of e-media, Sony Music Europe) and Shannon Ferguson (director of media and entertainment, Yahoo). Cherie Matrix, a community manager with Freeserve. com said: “I think the ITBeat project is great. I didn’t have a real job until I got into the net a few years ago.”

Her enthusiasm was matched by April, 11, from the Blessed Hugh Farringdon Catholic School, in Reading. “There aren’t enough girls into computers. We joined the school computer club and got to do lots of projects like the school magazine and learn about technology. I think it’s really cool.”

Her friend Hayley, 12, added: “We get to use the equipment without the boys taking over.” Dominic Tester, their IT teacher, explained: “It’s all about breaking the cycle of girls not being into IT. We have 108 girls in the school’s computer club, and so many times I’ve heard the girls say ‘I didn’t know I could do this with IT’.”

The event was enjoyed by the 250 girls, if the screaming as the boy-bands and TV presenters shuttled on and off stage was anything to go by. And in keeping with technology, the technical hitch was never far away, in the form of intermittent power cuts in the celebrity marquee. Anna, 12, and Gretel, 15, from Winchester Westgate School, won their award with a web site about pop band Blue. Anna built the site while Gretel wrote the content. Anna said: “I was bored one day and started playing around on the internet and learnt how to build a site. Now I even teach my Dad how to do it.”

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