Careers in IT: Women Please Apply

Birgit Nazarian, Writer, specializing in IT and HR | 2/15/2012 | 27 comments

Birgit Nazarian
Many of the biggest technology-related companies are reaching out and hoping to snag a few good men... and women. With the Society of Women Engineers preparing to host the NCWIT Summit on Women and IT, leaders in the industry are hoping their strategies bring in more women now and in the coming years.

Why are they trying so hard? According to a recent report from the National Center for Women and Information Technology, "if current trends continue, by 2018 the information technology industry will only be able to fill half of its available jobs." Since 2001, the ratio of women to men majoring in computer science has been dropping significantly. To help avoid a continued, ever-increasing shortage of talent, we must figure out how to persuade more women and members of other diverse groups to choose careers in IT.

Many institutions and think tanks have been collecting a lot of interesting data suggesting that diversity is good for innovation and overall success. Diverse, mixed-gender teams appear to be better problem solvers than single-gender teams. I don’t want to split hairs with anyone about differences between the sexes, and I’m not Camille Paglia. But let’s just say more diversity in thinking due to different backgrounds and experiences creates a certain je ne sais quoi.

So how do the NCWIT and its many friends in the IT industry (like Microsoft, IBM, and Google) propose to convince women to consider a career in technology? One way is with partnerships that create initiatives in corporations and schools all over the country. They start with a big idea: showing more women of all ages how a career in IT can be a good choice and how they can become part of the industry. To achieve this goal, they formed the Pacesetters fast-track program. Its goal is to add 1,000 women to the IT professional ranks this year.

According to Campus Technology, schools and businesses participating in Pacesetters are already reporting progress. The University of Virginia expects its female computing graduates to increase 10 percent to 25 percent. Google says it has doubled its female engineer interns, and the University of California, Santa Cruz says 40 percent more women are majoring in computer science.

It’s obvious that lots of emphasis is placed on how to get women into technology from the high school and college levels, but what about retaining the women code warriors already in IT? This is just as important, if not more so. I personally know three women who abandoned IT after their Y2K work and went on to very different careers. I suspect it was because of burnout, frustration, or both.

But technology has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. So have work environments -- for the better, I believe. IT is a great place for anyone to start or revive a career, including women. The benefits can be very attractive: more flexibility, transferrable skills that are in demand, and higher salaries than most other careers requiring a bachelor’s degree. And lastly, with the growing importance of technology in our daily lives, this profession offers more prestige and even a chance to make a difference in the world.

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PamR   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 11:25:58 AM
Start in the Lower Grades
As long as kids who are into technology are seen as a little weird, there's a problem.

I distinctly recall reading the riot act to my daughter's little circle of friends who were busy mocking another kid in middle school, where wearing the wrong color shirt can get you ostracized. The target of the mocking was a girl who spent her lunch hour reading algebra books, for fun. My riot act reading included mentioning that they'd all probably be working for that girl some day because she'd be running her own company and making millions. But if schools could improve that perception of kids who are doing something different, stopping doing "signing days" only for athletes and make math and science cool, that would go a long way to drawing in more girls. And more boys, too, I'd think.
David Wagner   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 12:50:25 PM
Re: Start in the Lower Grades
I remember reading a book (I'm trying to figure out which one) that showed that there was noticeable and positive change for companies even with 30-70 female-male ratios in leadership positions.

The discussion in the book was mostly about boards of directors and C-suites, but i think the same thing can be said of IT. 30% (or even better, 50%) participation brings in the kind of talent, perspective, varied backgrounds, different mind sets etc to solve problems better.

I believe it, because there is a very simple equation at work. If only half your population is involved in any decision being made, it means half your brain power is going to waste.

DBK   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 1:03:17 PM
Re: Start in the Lower Grades
Simply good timing I saw a post from one of my LinkedIn buddies.  The post was that she was attending the women 2.0 conference and had never seen so many women at a technology conference.  I have also read that a current trend is that women are continuing on for higher education and the trend for men is declining.
Sara Peters   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 2:08:05 PM
Re: Start in the Lower Grades
@PamR  I agree with you. Lately I've been hearing from more people that IT careers are getting to be cool with the kids today... but for some reason I'm not buying it. And I'm not sure quite how to change it. Maybe we need more people like you reading the riot act to the kids picking on the "math nerds" and ceasing to think of them as math nerds at all.
Umair Ahmed   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 4:04:17 PM
Stereotype Threat

Career selections are mostly biased by myths & stereotypes (family, friends and teachers all plays the big role in it). And the stereotypes about science, technology & engineering discourage the women from choosing a career in technical field.  To attract more females to IT we really need fight the phrase:

"Oh how women do fuss! No application, No concentration. That's why no women have ever been great artists or scientists." from the character Prof. Henry Corrie, British Novel 'The Progress'

bnazarian   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 5:49:10 PM
Re: Stereotype Threat
@Umair Ahmed, when we think about it, it really has been only a short time that women in some parts of the world even have been encouraged to seek careers in professions other than the standard nurse, teacher, care giver, etc. Considering all that there is so much ingrained tradition still to confront. Even in my generation, very few teachers insisted I work very hard in math and science.

Most of my friends agreed math was hard and we avoided it. Most students didn't get anywhere near computers for another 3-4 years. Desk top PCs were a new thing by the time I was in university so my first time using one was after I graduated at my first job. It was a little too late for me to do anything but try learning on my own which I did. 

With all the great resources available no one has to struggle that way now. If anyone has an interest in this field there are so many ways to go about gaining knowledge and a number of ways to gain experience such as participating in open source projects. It's really a matter of letting people know what's out there and what they can do with it. 
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bnazarian   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 6:05:32 PM
Re: Start in the Lower Grades
@PamR so true! Last summer my daugther got an invitation into advanced algebra pre-calculus when she left 6th grade. I was bursting with joy (you know because she wasn't going to be the math dud her mom was). The downside was that she and a couple dozen other kids selected had to spend several hours two weeks before school started in the classroom for a primer.

Convincing her to accept her fate as a brainiac was tough. There was whining, there was crying and begging and moaning at the prospect of having to spend her time in a stifling classroom when she could be at the pool and hanging out with friends. She thought the advanced math class was not where she should be. I called the school and found out a few of her friends had been also accepted. Not only did she go without complaining, she seemed to have a pretty good time - even though after 4 hours a day they also brought home more homework! 

So, she still moans about how rotten she is in math while bringing home "A's" in the subject. I hope she breaks the stereotypes of what a math geek looks and acts like. I keep talking about how cool it is to be smart and hope I can keep her engaged in it. Everytime I mention programming though she says "NO!" Oh...I'll figure out a way to hook her...I will.  
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CurtisFranklin   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 9:21:48 PM
Re: Start in the Lower Grades
@PamR, we've been working for years (decades?) to help students understand that scientific achievement is as valid, wonderful and "cool" as athletic achievement. We've made progress,  but we haven't really succeeded, yet.

The Apollo program provided considerable cachet for scientists, as did the early days of the microcomputer revolution. We don't have either of those acting on society any more, and haven't found anything to replace them.
David Wagner   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 9:55:46 PM
Re: Start in the Lower Grades
I was recently watching a documentary about the Scopes monkey trial. During the trial Clarence Darrow spend hours crushing William Jennings Bryant, the leading religious figure in America at the time, on the witness stand. He basically obliterates any sense that a perfect literal interpretation of the bible connects with the scientifc reality of the planet.

At the time, the scientific community, assumed that it was such a great victory for science that no one could possibly continue to deny evolution. While the trial was considered a victory for evolution, in reality the exact opposite happened in AMerica. More states passed anti-evolution laws. Evolution which had previously been taught in many schools without question disappeared. The Religious Right as we know it took hold throughout much of the south and midwest.

For 75 years or more, we've been fighting the anti-science feelings that have come from Darrow's drubbing of "poor religion."

It is hard enough to make ANYONE like science in the face of religious opposition, much less girls who have to also fight other social stereotypes.

I might actually say that it might actually be easier to catch kids, especially girls later in their lives when they are more capable of thinking for themselves rather than reaching them younger.
David Wagner   Careers in IT: Women Please Apply   2/15/2012 10:50:58 PM
Working Environment
One of the things I've often wondered about is why women would want to work in the average IT department. They're not the stereotype of the garage with the nude pinups on the wall, but most IT shops I've been in have been grungy, disorganized messes that resemble college dorms.

Now, i'm not prescribing to the stereotype that all women are neat and tidy and men are slobs, but the fact that the avaerage IT shop looks like a bachelor pad can't really help.
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