Where Are All the Women in IT?

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There is no female equivalent of Bill Gates in the IT world. Let me clarify, I couldn’t find one, and I asked around. There are influential women loosely connected to the Information Technology field, such as Patricia Russo, chairman and CEO of Lucent Technologies, Linda Dillman, CIO of Wal-Mart, and Carly Fiorina, who only comes to mind because of her recent set-down as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. When you think of women in IT in general, however, you might not think of, well, anyone in particular. Why? Because women are still faced with many of the same problems that have constricted their movement in the industry or prevented them from joining it at all.

A recent study by the American Association of University Women stated that whereas women are as likely as men to receive a four-year college degree, only 28 percent are studying in a field that will prepare them for work in science, engineering and IT. “Only about 15 percent of the undergraduates who are computer science majors are women, and that’s a pretty big gap,” said Elena Silva, director of research, American Association of University Women. “In the industry itself, and this is chronicled somewhat in our report from 2003, Women at Work, when we do see girls and women, they’re more likely to not be the ones who are doing the programming, designing and inventing. They’re more likely to take on data-entry positions or positions that are lower-level and lower-status within the industry.”

There are quite a few solid reasons for the gap. Among these are cultural stereotypes that women aren’t good in math and science, or that women are better in professions like nursing and teaching. “Historically, there are certain professions and fields that women have not been a part of,” Silva said. “Another piece of that is tracing down the pipeline. Looking backwards from pre-K up, the culture of IT and computer science that began in the late ’70s and has continued into this new century, is it something that’s appealing to girls? Is it being taught in a way that is engaging to girls, or is it still pretty much positioned or framed as a male industry and a male field of study? There is good evidence that there are curricula and efforts to engage girls and women in the field, but those efforts are not enough to make up for that overwhelming culture that IT is a male field, that it is something that boys and men pursue successfully while women sort of dance around the margins.”

There’s an assumption of what women are good and not good at, and Silva said that both of these types of assumptions are very damaging to women, to men, and to society at large. “Particularly women are affected by this because their opportunities are limited, and ultimately, it affects their economic security and well-being, their ability to care for themselves and for their families. They’re not able to enter professions that are high-paying and high-status,” Silva said. “Further, there’s a sense that in the case of gender discrimination, as long as no overt or hostile statements are made against women, it’s okay to have these assumptions and allow them to play out in practice in ways that affect people’s field of study, workplace and ultimately their careers and livelihoods.”

As an example, game companies have been criticized for creating biased software. Even parents can be guilty of stereotyping if they encourage their children to play with certain types of toys, or buy little Johnny a computer while Jane gets a baby-wets-herself doll complete with cloth diapers. When those same stereotypes carry over into the school system, the bias becomes more serious. “There’s a cultural issue at play, which is not something we can solve overnight,” Silva said. “It’s more of a societal issue, but there’s also pretty strong curriculum and pedagogical issues that we can deal with. We can learn what’s happening with students and how they approach this field from grade school up through advanced studies. We can do something about that in terms of how we teach and what we teach. There are still serious and pretty overt and more subtle instances of gender stereotyping that are at play. The example everybody’s highlighting right now are the remarks by Larry Summers. For the president of one of the most elite universities (Harvard) to make comments that suggest women innately, biologically, inherently are less likely to succeed in the sciences is a pretty strong statement and sends a pretty strong message. That’s a good indication of the culture and the often unspoken assumptions that people make about the innate abilities of women, and men in other fields.”

Education seems to be the key to turning false but active cultural and stereotypical ideas around, but this presents another problem: How do we get young girls and women interested and involved in math and science? Liz Ryan, CEO and founder of WorldWIT said that after the dot-com bust and the economic struggles the IT industry has gone through in recent years, parents of high school students got the message that tech is dead. “Of course, it’s not dead. There are a lot of things coming up to replace that which disappeared—high-paying Internet company jobs—but there’s biomedical informatics and all kinds of things that are emerging. Apart from which the tech workforce is getting ready to retire in droves. There’s going to be a massive headcount shortage which is great for young people and for women if they can only be convinced, ‘Get your tush into those programs.’ Certification is right in the middle of that.”

“We need to do a better job of getting young women interested in math and science,” Ryan said. “If they get into school, even with less hiring activity going on, they’re going to be heavily recruited by major corporations. They’ll get a job. Next challenge is they’re in the corporation, but we don’t do a good job of making those environments hospitable to them. WorldWIT is an online discussion community for women in technology and business, and women are always writing, ‘You want to go into tech, get ready to be cold because men like the temperature cooler than you do and you’re going to be freezing, and they’re not going to turn the thermostat up so bring a sweater!”

Ryan said there are less amusing stories told of women being devalued and having to work twice as hard for less pay. The result is that women leave pure technology work and go into tech-oriented jobs such as project management, marketing or sales engineering where they can interact with customers and get the validation they didn’t get in the lab. “They have great technical credentials, but it just was not a woman-friendly environment,” Ryan said.

Then there’s the money issue. Women’s entry into male-dominated industries such as IT does not necessarily translate into pay equity, but with the right qualifications, experience and repertoire of soft skills, combating the inequities becomes easier. Scott Melland, president and CEO of Dice.com has said that because of an emphasis on work performance, the IT industry is one of the best fields for women because as women move up the educational and skills ladders, the gender gap decreases. Ryan agrees. “I actually think it’s very good to be in IT as a woman, because in a lot of these functions, if you’ve the same certification and the same years of experience, it’s very hard to justify a differential in pay,” Ryan said. Dice.com’s 2004 Salary Survey supports this, stating that out of the top five industries in which professional women’s income is closest to men’s, four are specific to IT: computer hardware, telecommunications, Internet services and computer software.

Information technology underpins almost every other industry out there, and its presence is not likely to lessen in the future. In fact, just the opposite is true. To make that message clear and apparent, women must encourage one another to pursue IT positions and certifications

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