Unilever CIO: Hard to Keep Women in IT

The packaged goods company says it typifies British businesses in finding it difficult to maintain gender balance in the tech upper tiers

Retaining female IT staff is a greater challenge than keeping male team members as they progress up the department hierachy. That's the view of Unilever global CIO Neil Cameron, who was speaking about IT team building at silicon.com's CIO Forum in London today.

The consumer packaged goods giant could typify many UK companies finding it difficult to maintain the gender balance in its IT department.

The company operates five management tiers and Cameron said his department is a well-balanced team in terms of gender up to level three but after that he sees an 85 per cent drop off in female staff because he says women are not prepared to accept certain conditions.

Cameron said: "Women are much better about deciding how they are going to live their lives and much better at saying to themselves they are not going to put up with the increased travel or put up with having to spend three nights of the week away from home."

Cameron accepted that the few women on his team who stay to become strategic leaders within the company provide a critical alternative viewpoint to the 'blokeish' response to issues an all-male team might deliver and that changes to working practices, such as flexible working, should redress the balance.

However, he stopped short of advocating any sort of quota system or affirmative action, saying a positive policy on employing more women on the team "can't be seen as a sop for anyone who shouldn't be there", adding: "We all have to accept it's a bumpy playing field."

Cameron explained HR has much more of a role to play in nurturing a balanced IT team. Uniliver has a full-time HR executive as part of the IT department, who "holds a mirror up to the rest of us and pushes us harder". "Hopefully there is a new breed of HR team that pushes the business rather than just pushing through process," he added.

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