Despite gains, IT remains problematic for women
By Beth Bacheldor
When speaking of women in technology, it’s tempting to say we’ve come a long way, baby. But the statistics don’t bear this out. Of course, women are working at all levels of IT, and young women around the world are studying computer science and related courses in high school and at universities. But several new research reports indicate that the number of women in IT has stagnated at best, and has actually declined from previous levels in many cases. It’s clear that there’s a long way to go before women are well-represented in the field.
For instance, a scorecard issued in January by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), shows the percentage of women in computing-related occupations [in the U.S.] fell between 2000 and 2009, with the exception of 2008, when the proportion of women held steady. NCWIT, based in Boulder, Colo., is a coalition of more than 250 corporations, academic institutions, government agencies and nonprofit groups working to strengthen the computing workforce and promote innovation by increasing the participation of women and under-represented groups.
In 2009, only 25 percent of IT-related professionals in the U.S. workforce were women — down from 36 percent in 1991, according to the most recent figures from NCWIT. The reasons vary, according to Jenny Slade, NCWIT’s spokeswoman. These range from the fact that fewer young women are entering the IT and technology workforce to the fact that it is still dominated by men, which in turn, fosters a culture that’s less appealing to women. “It is probably a combination of things,” she says. Young women “are still misinformed about what an IT job is.” They need to know that “IT jobs require problem solving, teamwork, and a talent for creating real business solutions,” Slade says.
While high-profile female CIOs — Denise Coyne at Chevron, Beth Jacob at Target Corp., Barbra Cooper at Toyota, and Jane Moran at Thomson Reuters--have found their way to the top, they are few in number. The NCWIT report points to a 2008-09 Tech Salary Survey conducted by Dice Holdings, which found that women accounted for just 9 percent of IT management, which includes positions such as CEO, CIO, CTO, VP, director, strategist or architect. One reason, experts suggest, is that as women scale the ladder, they find it difficult to balance family responsibilities and work. Those pressures have mounted, as many companies downsize, putting more work on upper managers’ plates.
Slow Climb to the Top
CIO Gina Papworth knows firsthand what it’s like to climb the corporate ladder rung by rung. She got her start in IT in 1989 as a programmer, and worked at a trucking company before she joined Motor Coach Industries, a manufacturer of intercity coaches serving tour operators, transit agencies and others. For the past three-and-a-half years she’s led IT there and has the respect of her peers.
Previously, however, “it was very difficult to be the only female in the room; it was difficult to even try and get into the room,” she says, recounting her time as CIO at an organization where she was excluded from executive management meetings. But Papworth stood her ground, enlisted the help of another executive, and made the case to be included. Her perseverance paid off, and at her first meeting Papworth detailed how the order-management system was capable of automatically discerning between orders and shipments to determine safe credit risks. She soon gained credibility and clout for her contributions to the business, but first she had to have access and visibility.
“The field is more aware than it was before that there is an issue for women in technical positions,” says Caroline Simard, VP of Research and Executive programs at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. “When I joined [the Institute] in 2006, people didn’t recognize there was a problem. The general consensus was simply that there were not enough women graduating with tech degrees.” The good news, she adds, is companies are making headway. “The issues are out on the table, and are starting to be addressed.”
Nevertheless, many women are leaving IT and technology jobs before they ever reach executive levels, according to a report titled, “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology,” released in 2008. Co-author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, also the founder and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, says that 56 percent of women in technology leave their organizations 10 to 20 years into their careers, jeopardizing chances of reaching their earnings and leadership potential. Interestingly, most of these women remain in the workforce, but in a different capacity: 49 percent continue in IT, either in the public sector or in their own businesses, and 31 percent work in a nontechnical field; only 20 percent leave the workforce entirely.
CIO Papworth says she’s seen a number of her women peers change course mid-career, too, and Sandra Hofmann, CIO-in-Residence at the Advanced Technology Development Center, took a similar path in her career-- but doesn’t see it as a negative. Hofmann, who is also president of Women in Technology in Atlanta, says she’s seen many start their own businesses in consulting or to become chief operating officers or other types of business executive, which gave them authority and career satisfaction. (For more about career path options, read the blog here.)
IT and Younger Women
And while young women, like young men, use technology more widely today than in the past, those skills don’t seem to be driving their career choices. For example, the United Kingdom’s IT Job Board, an IT specialist recruitment website with 15,500 members, recently revealed that among its candidate database only 16 percent of all job seekers are women.
Consuelo Valdes, an undergraduate at Wellesley College with a focus on human-computer interaction says some families may not view IT careers as viable options for women. Also, “The media in general portrays mixed messages for youth,” Valdes says.
Valdes is a Lead Research Assistant at the Wellesley College Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Lab. She has worked on an iPhone application and two Microsoft Surface applications for deployment in a college museum. Valdes expects to graduate this year and says that although her family doesn’t quite understand her career choice, university faculty “always encouraged me to excel and challenge myself,” including studying computer science.
Valdes didn’t take her first computing course, in Java programming, until her second year of college, when she “was officially hooked! I fell in love with the problem solving and the way that computer science challenges while empowering you.” From there, she took classes in networks, data mining, media and multimedia. “It wasn't until Human-Computer Interaction that I found my niche, however. In HCI, I found a place where I could take my people skills, design skills, and CS experience and combine them to become a super interface creator,” she says.
Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial also believes that young women who take computer science classes will have a leg up in a tough job market. One graduate considered a career in architecture, but landed a job as a Web designer based on her experience at Georgia Tech where she was an undergrad teaching assistant for a computational class.
The Role of Mentors
In school or in the workplace, basics such as encouragement and mentoring are clearly vital if women are to succeed and to advance to upper-level and C-level management positions. Papworth recommends that companies seek out their highest performers, promote them and then follow up with training that will serve them well in their new positions. She suggests mentoring, assertiveness training and delegation skills as vital to women’s success in IT. [see sidebar for Action Items]
Hofmann agrees, and adds that mentoring programs are most successful if they include people from outside an organization. “A mentor should be someone who doesn’t hold your paycheck or have preconceived notions about the employee,” she says.
Simard, at the Anita Borg Institute, suggests that companies should also consider flexible work policies to provide both men and women the opportunity to excel and still have a good work-life balance.
With a combination of new opportunities, ongoing support and workplace changes, women may yet fill the ranks of IT executives.
Beth Bacheldor is a business and technology writer based in Wilmington, N.C.
ASK THE EXPERTS
Sandra C. Hofmann CIO-in-Residence, Advanced Technology Development Center
Sandra is currently CIO-in-Residence at ATDC, a science and technology incubator headquartered at Georgia Tech. Most recently she was Chief Operating Officer at Closets and More, and prior to that, she served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Turknett Leadership Group, a management and consulting firm that focuses on aligning strategy, leadership and culture.
Her broad management experience includes 14 years with IBM. She joined MAPICS as Vice President and General Manager and was the first female member of the executive team. She then stepped into the dual role of CIO and Chief People Officer and established the company’s organizational model for the “virtual office,” which she says provided enterprise efficiency and expense benefits.
The Georgia CIO Leadership Association selected Sandra as a Georgia CIO of the Year in the 2003. In addition, she currently serves on the Board of Directors for AAA Auto Club South, TechBridge, Women in Technology, and is the past chairman of the Board of Directors for Society for Human Resource Management, Atlanta chapter. She serves as Compensation Committee Chair for Akrometrix Board of Directors. Sandra graduated from Georgia StateUniversity and has completed an executive management program at Stanford University. She is a frequent speaker and panelist for technology and community events.
Sandra is a member of Smart Enterprise Exchange and can be reached via the community e-mail.
Gina Papworth, Executive Director, Information Technology, Motor Coach Industries
Gina got her start in IT in 1989 as a programmer, and worked at a trucking company before she joined Motor Coach Industries, a manufacturer of intercity coaches serving tour operators, transit agencies and others in Rockford, Ill. For the past three-and-a-half years she’s led IT there. She says she "enjoys working in IT, because every day brings different challenges and opportunities."
Gina graduated from Roosevelt University in Chicago with a major in Data Processing and a minor in Busines
She love animals and her hobbies are golf, tennis, reading, shopping, hiking, video gaming, fishing, listening to music and spending time with family and friends.
Gina is a member of Smart Enterprise Exchange and can be reached via the community e-mail.
Caroline Simard, Anita Borg Institute
Caroline leads the Anita Borg Institute’s (ABI) research and executive program initiatives. Her research on the barriers facing women in technology has received national attention. She led the design, data collection and analysis, writing, and dissemination of the Institute’s first major research initiative: “Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Technology. She has also published major reports on underrepresented minorities in technology, employee retention strategies, attributes of senior technical women and issues facing K-12 Computer Science Education. She serves on the Leadership Team of the National Center for Women and Information Technology and is a former member of the editorial committee at the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Prior to ABI, Simard was a researcher at the Center for Social Innovation of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
She holds a PhD in communication studies from Stanford University, with a focus on organizational theory, high-technology industries, and social networks. Caroline also holds degrees from Université de Montréal and Rutgers University. She is a frequent speaker and blogger on organizational and individual strategies for talent management .
Consuelo Valdes, Wellesley College
Consuelo is a senior Computer Science major at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. Her passions lie in the world of ubiquitous computing, tangible interfaces, and intuitive interfaces that create a fulfilling user experience. She is very invested in the field of Human Computer Interaction and is a Research Assistant at the Wellesley College HCI lab. Her work with the lab includes redesigning and stabilizing an iPhone application and two Microsoft Surface applications for deployment in a college museum. She also integrated organizational tools in to the lab setting that improved productivity and collaboration.
Consuelo is also part of a project to develop a game for the Imagine Cup next year and she is collaborating with an MBA group at Babson College on a social calendar project. She was born in Caracas, Venezuela and raised in Miami.