Volume 16, Number 2 -- January 15, 2007

Why the Number of Women in IT Is Decreasing

Published: January 15, 2007

by Mary Lou Roberts

At its Fall Symposium last October, Gartner braved an interesting and controversial topic, examining the reports that women are reportedly entering the information technology workforce in fewer and fewer absolute numbers and in fewer numbers than the decrease of women in the workforce in general is showing up in other professions. Why this is happening, and why this is a serious problem that companies need to address?

As a woman who cut her professional teeth in the IT world at the same time that Helen Reddy was singing "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar," I was immensely interested in Gartner's findings and assertions. I was also skeptical, expecting to read a laundry list of politically correct findings and suggestions. But that presentation, followed by my conversation with Mark Raskino, a Gartner fellow and research vice president who co-authored the report with two female co-workers, was anything but politically correct.

To begin with, I asked Raskino what prompted Gartner to pursue this study. The title of the presentation, "Women and Men in IT: Breaking Through Sexual Stereotypes," is not one I would have expected as part of the research agenda at a major industry research firm. Raskino explains, however, that in Gartner's mainstream research the company traditionally looks at all of the "high probability events," by which Gartner means those issues that have both a high probability and a major impact. Sometimes, however, there are issues bubbling under the surface that are relatively low probability but also have major impact. "There was a lot of internal debate about those issues that we were missing, and this topic came to the foreground because it was a simple juxtaposition of something that many of us had become aware of at the same time."

The raw research numbers presented by Gartner are fairly dramatic. The number of women in IT, as measured as a percentage of the total IT personnel pool, declined from 42 percent in 1996 to 32.4 percent in 2004--with no noticeable progress in the number of women in professional or management ranks.

In the first place, Raskino says, the direction in which corporate IT seems to be moving is one that is more about information and relationships and less about technology. The needed skill sets to accommodate this change in emphasis are those that "you would typically associated with the female population" such as language skills, communication skills, and relationship building.

At the same time, however, Gartner was seeing more and more data from its own research and from the research of others that the number of women in IT is decreasing, and that fewer women are electing computer science programs in college. The research shows, Raskino says, that this is happening the world over. "I'm really struck by the fact that this is global. There was no company that has come back to us and said, 'our country is different.' Even in Sweden, which is an archetype of strong social approaches to equality issues, the numbers of women in IT are declining."

Looking then at the direction of corporate IT as a whole together with the belief that skill sets typically associated with women are increasingly needed by IT, Gartner delved into the topic and reported its findings. Raskino is quick to point out that the company is "not coming at this from the standpoint of right or wrong; that's not what we do at Gartner. What we are saying is that, in the next three to five years in terms of delivering what IT departments are expected to deliver, the gender imbalance is going to put these departments in a really weak position unless they do something about it and address it."

According to Gartner, the business and IT drivers for the 10-year period from 2006 to 2016 will be:

  1. Consumer centricity, emphasizing customer experience, usability, convenience, and productivity.
  2. Global reach, emphasizing coordination of services, competence, and perspectives.
  3. Extended value chains, emphasizing collaboration, alliances, intangibles, and diverse stockholders.
  4. Innovation, emphasizing imagination and execution for products, services, and business. Many of these traits are typically associated more with women than with men.

Gartner suggests that there is a need to break through some of the standard approaches to attracting women to IT and accommodating the needs of women. Raskino suggests that companies need to do some "radical thinking" to address the problem. This radical thinking makes the topic controversial because it requires that employers look at the male and female populations as being different and as having different strengths. "That is difficult because in gender politics, you are supposed to treat everyone as equal."

Psychologists have, by and large, agreed that there are differences between the general characteristics of men and women. Translated into the world of IT, Gartner says, that means women are better at listening with both the left brain and the right brain; this has implications for roles such as business analyst and team leader. Similarly, women are better at a range of language skills and they score better on social skills and understanding the viewpoints of others. Men, on the other hand, tend to be better at complex mental visualization and pattern spotting, which has implications for certain aspects of engineering roles. Men also take more risks and are happier doing so openly--characteristics that make them more suited to innovation and competitiveness.

These generalizations, however, are just that: generalizations. And there is no question that each man and each woman must be treated and assessed individually, since there is a wide variety of traits and personalities. But, generalizations can and are made with some validity. Gartner, then, is saying that companies must break from the notion that men and women are completely equal. This may not be a very popular idea.

Are these differences nature or nurture? Although the psychologists are nearly unanimous on the question of whether or not there are differences between the two sexes, they are less clear on whether these characteristics are genetically hard-wired or a result of our surroundings, cultures, and upbringings. Gartner, wisely, does not get into that debate, choosing instead simply to point out that the differences do exist and need to be acknowledged and dealt with.

At the live presentation in October, Gartner asked the members of its audience whether or not they believed there were significant differences between the capabilities of men and women. Half of the audience said yes, and half said no. "There is something in office politics that wants to say that everybody is the same. We're in controversial territory here," Raskino admits. "But it's important to get into that territory because unless companies realize this now, they won't take the sorts of actions necessary to change the gender balance in IT, and we know that will serve them badly."

He points to things like the increasingly social nature of the Internet, of information management (e.g., the percentage of female librarians to male librarians), and of the importance to companies of building and managing relationships with vendors in the supply chain and at outsourcers, not to mention managing the interactions between IT and the business side, which is becoming more and more pivotal to the success of IT. "Again," Raskino emphasizes, "all of these things point to the need for more 'female characteristics.'"

Why are women seemingly dropping out of the IT world? In some cases, the profession has become viewed as "a boy thing" for computer nerds and geeks (male). This impression causes girls to eliminate consideration of a job in IT as soon as the early teens, which is when, according to Raskino, research shows that many girls are beginning to choose their career paths--or at least eliminate some of the possibilities.

What can be done? How can IT attract more women into its ranks? In the United Kingdom, Raskino reports, government agencies have been encouraging the educational system to build after-school programs--computer clubs for girls on their own, away from boys--to change that perception.

Some women in Australia have put together an organization that promotes "The IT Screen Goddess Initiative" complete with its own Website (Caution: I rate this Website "PG"). The group's major project is the publication of an "IT Goddess" calendar that rivals the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. The stated purpose of the calendar is "to dispel the 'geeky' image of IT and the perception that IT is not a desirable career for women, by providing a life expose of real women with unreal careers--all living and loving IT."

The IT Goddesses are very explicit about their goals:

  • Smash through the perception of the geeky technologist
  • Put a spotlight on the industry and increase national interest and awareness in careers in information technology
  • Raise awareness of the diversity of women in IT
  • Raise money for non-profit groups that run initiatives to encourage females to take up technology studies and to enter technology careers
  • Promote organizations and companies involved in and supporting IT through sponsorship/promotional opportunities on each page of the calendar

Raskino calls this Website "a shocker," but points out that this is the extent to which some have gone to promote the acceptability of IT as a career for women. Even if the examples from the UK and Australia given here and others are successful in increasing the interest of young girls in pursuing a profession in IT, it won't solve the problem of the declining numbers of women in IT for several years. More immediately, companies can look to the number of women who left the workforce (many of whom lost jobs during the bust) and take initiatives to draw them back in. The best way to do this, he suggests, is by getting away from the model that everyone needs to be physically present in the office, and build work-from-home programs. "That's one way to pull back the self-excluded work force and find and use people who already have the skills to fill the gaps."

How can companies review and change their strategies to ensure that they have the right skills moving forward? The old model, Raskino points out, called for companies to "get more women into the game" by promoting women, extinguishing stereotypes, changing the culture, using human resources policies to level the playing field, waiting for women to catch up, and trying to get people to change how they think and feel. Instead, companies should "change the game" by educating people and learning the facts, focusing on the six critical competencies for all employees, and rethinking the management perspective. Designing work teams that emphasize group dynamics over leadership centralization is also important. Well-balanced work, mixed-gender teams will give the best results.

Overall, then, Gartner recommends that IT managers need to have the courage to change the game. IT leaders should exploit gender differences--an approach that will deliver better results than trying to change stereotypes. HR leaders should "design practices and policies for the stereotyped world--not for the way you wish it were." And CIOs should design IT teams, work, opportunities, and management/process platforms for a stereotyped world.

Above all, Raskino suggests that "we have to stop being locked into the thinking that we have to have equality in everything. Rather, we need to recognize and exploit those differences and stop pretending that everyone is the same."

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