A panel consisting of Rebecca George, the Chair of the Women's IT Group and Director of UK Government business for IBM UK; Richard Lowther, Human Resources Director for Oracle UK; and Pauline Hendersen, Employment Relations Team for the DTI, was asked by Shout99.com what they thought the future held for women within the UK IT freelance sector.
Mrs George said: "I think being a freelancer is a double-edged sword. If you want to be a freelance contractor and you've already earned your stripes and got your skills and made your network - because contracting is about networking - and can put in the hours, as contractors put in a lot of hours, and work from home - I think the opportunity will continue to exist for a very long time, provided the Government takes a decision to support that way of working.
"However," she warned, "if you want to get on and develop your skills and you want 'a career' and you want to reach a senior position, it's very hard to do that as a contractor. If you have very, very scarce skills sets, then you have a facility. But scare skills today will probably be abundant skills in five years time and being independent means you will have to work three times harder to keep your skills up to date than if you were an employee of a large company."
Alistair Stewart, the ITN newsreader who hosted the panel, asked Mrs George if - as a long-standing employee of IBM - she believed in the concept of women leaving big business, with the skills they had acquired, to go freelancing.
Mrs George replied: "absolutely" and Mr Lowther said he also agreed with Mrs George "to the letter."
However, the issue of the damaging effects of the taxation system for freelancers was promptly raised and Alison Taylor, Director of Taylor Made Solutions - which has been given DTI money to develop software - provided a case study of how this was affecting her personally.
She told the conference: "I feel I'm being punished by the Government for what I'm doing. I use a part-time programmer friend of mine one day a week and the Government has now decided she is my employee, even though she is a freelancer and works odd hours. Because the Government has decided she is my employee, I now have to pay 'back tax' that I would have been paying for her if she had been my employee from the start, as well as National Insurance and Employers' Tax. I'm going to be hit very, very hard by all of this in April.
"It's not fair and it's not right, legislation for small businesses is strangling us and the Government must work to change it."
The audience responded with thunderous applause and Mrs Henderson from the DTI, who said she was not aware of the problem previously, pledged to take the concerns raised back to Westminster with her.
Richard Powell, © Shout99.com 2003