The Gender Gap

As an IT professional, you probably spend hours at a computer each day. This entails a great deal of anonymity: troubleshooting networks, working with remote servers or collaborating with invisible peers in a virtual world. After all, going online typically means going unseen.

But if you were to view the faces of your anonymous virtual peers, you would notice that most of them are, in fact, male. That’s because while women increasingly use technology in everyday life and even have outpaced men in many spaces online, they’re not making their way into IT careers.

In a 2007 Burst Media report, women said the Internet has become vital in organizing and planning their daily lives. Recent research by Solutions Research Group also found women are in control of most consumer electronics purchases, and more than ever are using online resources for both entertainment and to stay connected with others via blogging and social networking sites.

Despite this adoption of technology and the Internet in their personal lives, however, women are ill-represented in the IT workplace. While females fill 56 percent of the professional positions in the U.S. workforce, they account for only 27 percent of all IT employees, according the “NCWIT Scorecard 2007” report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), an organization dedicated to increasing female participation in the IT industry.

“Women are obviously using technology, and [they] purchase more technology devices — laptop computers, CDs, iPods — than men do,” said Jenny Slade, communications director at NCWIT. “But as far as creating that technology, they’re still just a minimal presence.”

Indeed, the number of women going into IT careers has been on the decline for decades. In 1984, women were awarded 37 percent of all computer science degrees; in 2007, that number had fallen to 19 percent, according to NCWIT.

Where Have All the IT Workers Gone?

A number of factors contribute to the downward trend in IT workers’ numbers, Slade said. The most obvious is the dot-com bust of the late ’90s. This led to a sharp drop in young people of both genders seeking out the profession.

More specific to girls’ lagging interest in IT, Slade said they are not being encouraged from the beginning. At the middle and high school levels, computer science is not a core part of the curriculum — instead, schools view it as an elective, she said.

The statistics support her stance. The NCWIT report shows a gap in female participation in computer science Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school when compared to other subject areas. In 2006, just 15 percent of computer science AP tests were completed by girls — the lowest for all AP subjects — while girls made up 56 percent of test-takers for all subject areas.

Academic counselors generally are not promoting women’s study of technology in college, either, Slade said, even though it is great experience to have.

“If you go into biology, for example, or chemistry, you’re definitely going to be looking at a career in biotech — one of the highest-paying and viable careers,” Slade said. “So to have some background in computer science is just incredibly helpful; and yet, college guidance counselors are not encouraging women to study technology as part of their curriculum.”

Lyn Snyder, a computer programming professor at Owens Community College in Ohio, agreed. But she pointed out that the problem starts even earlier in some cases.

“The guys [in elementary school] get into computers so much earlier because all of those software games are geared toward men — the ‘shoot ’em up, bang, bang’ [types]. Teachers [need] to make sure that they don’t promote this gender bias and that it doesn’t become a thing in grade school for guys to be the ones that are standing around the [classroom] computer.”

Owens Community College has recognized the importance of reaching out to a younger age group, and the IT program has focused recruiting efforts down to the seventh-grade level.

“We realized that many of them already have it set in their minds by ninth and 10th grade what they think they want to be,” Snyder said.

Kinzie Doll, a technology assistant at Liberty Public School District in Missouri, graduated from high school in 2007 and said it was encouragement from her teachers that made the difference.

“My middle school [computer] teacher kind of got me into [technology],” Doll explained. “My biggest influence, though, was my teacher I ended up having my senior year. She’s very motivating, and she does as much as she can to get her students to be successful.”

In eighth grade, Doll looked into Cisco’s two-year Networking Academy program at a local technology school. After a tour, she decided it was a good fit. But out of 40 students in her class, Doll said only four were girls — and two of them dropped out after the first year.

One reason she said young girls are shying away from IT is a sense of intimidation. “I think a lot of people are intimidated by [the industry] because it’s so male-dominated,” she said. “There is this mentality that girls can’t do technology. [In school], I was all about showing the boys up. I’m very, ‘You tell me I can’t do it, and I’ll show you I can.’”

Doll has proven this through her impressive IT credentials. As a sophomore in high school, she became certified in Microsoft Office 2003, and by graduation, she also had passed her A+, i-Net+ and CCNA exams. She also recently won first place in a SkillsUSA post-secondary competition that showcases the country’s brightest technical students.

Cultural Perception

Another challenge to the diversity of the IT workforce is the deeply ingrained perception about what kind of person makes a good IT professional.

“Computer science and IT have more of an image problem now than they did back in 1983-1984, when desktop computers were new for everyone,” Slade said. “Now, it’s a lot easier to point to a picture of a pale white guy with glasses and a pocket protector and say, ‘That’s a geek who’s into computers.’”

Even beyond the stereotype of the professionals themselves is the idea of what the job entails. Many still have a picture in their minds of an IT worker sitting in a dark room in the basement writing code or playing with hardware.

“We try to expose the diversity of what a networking career looks like to get people around the myth that if you come into [IT], you sit in the back room,” said Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, general manager of Learning@Cisco. “That’s not really what IT careers look like anymore. You might start off doing networking operations, [but] you’re still interfacing with lots of people and talking to customers and [there’s] very much a social aspect to the job.”

Marketing IT to Women

One way to overcome these stereotypes is through the use of awareness campaigns and role models. Meeting women who are conquering the IT world helps other females see the profession as something more attainable for themselves.

“It starts first with awareness: [We] try to bring exposure to other folks about these [women] that have made it in IT in a major way and have these very robust, significant careers,” Dunn said.

To this end, during Owens’ conference-style “We Are IT” event for young girls, attendees participate in a program called “lunch buddies.” Several students and one or two IT businesswomen sit down for a meal and discuss IT careers and address questions.

“People like role models,” Dunn said. “So if we can create more role models in the industry, we can, by definition, draw more people in.”

Another option for squashing the intimidation factor involves creating hands-on experiences. These demonstrate exactly what IT workers do and show girls they are capable of doing the tasks, too.

At Owens’ “We Are IT” event, all activities are hands-on, said Snyder, who chairs the event committee. Girls can choose from sessions on programming and robotics to Web design and game development. “Actually letting them hands-on do that and see that [allows them to realize], ‘Hey, this isn’t so hard. I really can do this.’”

As another means of attracting women, the industry can leverage women’s technology-related interests in the same way the marketing industry is doing so to sell them products and services. Slade suggested polling women for feedback about the technologies they use and then showing them how they can change what they don’t like.

For instance, if a woman doesn’t like a particular Web site or cell phone design, ask her, “How would you change it?” Then tell her about job roles that deal with those particular issues.

Slade said getting women’s input on the design of such products is important not simply for the social justice aspect of diversity in the IT workforce, but “because women do think differently from men. They have different experiences and see the world in a different way. So if there were more women designing cell phones, who knows how they’d be different, and better, for everyone.”

Success With Flexibility

Women’s roles in the workplace often require more flexibility. By considering this, employers can increase their recruitment of talented female IT workers.

Maria Melfa, co-founder and president of IT staffing company The Training Associates (TTA), said her company has integrated flexibility into the workplace to take advantage of the skills women have to offer.

“Internally, we want to be more flexible because we know that there are a lot of very intelligent, capable women out there that have been not taking jobs because of the lack of flexibility,” she said. “Our trainers basically get to choose when and where and how often they want to teach. So it’s a fantastic career, for especially a woman with children, because they can pick and choose.”

TTA also stresses the importance of work-life balance. Employees are allowed to bring children to work on holidays and vacations, and the company even occasionally provides baby sitters and movie rooms.

And it appears that this approach works. Melfa said since she started the company in 1994, the number of female contract trainers has increased from 5 percent to 35 percent. When accounting only for in-house staff trainers, the number shoots up to 58 percent.

Looking to the Future

Although the number of women in IT still is alarmingly low, the situation has improved during the development of the information age.

“When I first came into the industry, the only women around were, for the most part, either secretary or support people,” Dunn recalled. “Particularly when I reached the executive level, I might have been [the only woman at the top]. But I’d say in the last 10 years, that’s shifted significantly.”

Melfa said the situation was similar at the beginning of her career, when she left behind a career in the retail industry to find another passion in the technology sector. When she started working for her father’s IT company, she said only one of the 12 IT trainers on staff was a woman.

Today, Dunn said it’s a great time for women to join the industry.

“I think that what’s happened to the industry [is] we have become broader in our reach,” she said. “It gives you a very diverse space to start a career. We [at Cisco] think it’s a prime time for anyone who thought that IT might not be their gig in the past to start looking at IT as an area where they actually could apply themselves very well, get paid very well and have a great future, a great career that’s pretty stable.”

While Dunn and Melfa said areas such as networking and trainer roles are good options for women, the NCWIT report shows job roles especially wanting for females include computer hardware engineering and network administration. Support and analysis roles tend to have the highest number of women.

To better recruit female IT workers, companies can reach out to these lesser-represented areas. And women already in the industry can help by serving as role models to those considering the industry through events and organizations that support the cause.

Men also can help in the recruiting efforts. Snyder stressed the importance of male encouragement.

“Having the guys there [at ‘We Are IT’] and having them even run the breakout sessions shows the women that it’s not a field that men are afraid of them coming into — that men do want women to be there,” she said.

– Meagan Polakowski, meaganp@certmag.com

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Meagan Polakowski

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Comment:

  • inputout

    I have attended school for Networking and never saw a girl in class

  • Marsha

    Well, there are five of us in my CyberDefense program!