Volume 16, Number 4 -- January 29, 2007

The Vanishing IT Woman--System i Women Respond

Published: January 29, 2007

by Mary Lou Roberts

Two weeks ago in this newsletter, we ran a story, Why the Number of Women in IT is Decreasing, examining research that has been performed by Gartner on this topic. Although the findings and recommendations about the differences between the sexes were Gartner's and not my own, I did dust off my trusty Flak Jacket in anticipation of getting grief for covering such a politically incorrect topic.

But you folks are apparently way ahead of me in acknowledging the obvious: Women are indeed making other choices--more suited, perhaps, to their needs and desires--and dropping out of the IT career path at a rate much higher than their male counterparts.

Nate Viall, president of Nate Viall & Associates, a recruiting and industry research firm, points out that statistics back up the contention that the number of women in IT is decreasing, especially in the mid-tier jobs.

"Many of these women," he says, "are choosing to stay home, partly because business has not understood that women have multiple priorities and that women are still the primary caregivers. The businesses have not been accommodating these needs." Further, he maintains that women do not have the same level of corporate loyalty as men: "Their identities are not as tied up in work."

Viall also sees the decline in the number of college women who are choosing IT as a major. Since 1999, the number of people overall who have been electing computer science and IT management college programs has been in decline, but the deceleration rate for women has been three times faster than for men. Overall, today, total female enrollment in college computer programs is generally 8 percent to 15 percent--way down from the 40 percent it averaged in 1999 and 2000.

As an example, Viall recently spoke with a representative at one college who reported that the school's overall enrollment (both men and women) in their computer programs was only 75 percent what it was the previous year. But the number of enrolled females is quickly falling as a percentage of the total who did enroll. In the 2005-2006 academic year, women made up just 11 percent of that college's computer information system program; this year (the 2006-2007 academic year) that number has dropped to 6.7 percent. For the computer science program, which has traditionally had a lower number of women anyway, the percentage of women has dropped from 6.7 percent in the 2005-2006 academic year only 4.8 percent in the 2006-2007 academic year.

Data also shows, Viall says, that in the late 1990s, women made up 40 percent of application developers with less than three years of experience. Today, that number is 10 percent. However, with fewer and fewer women choosing some type of computer program at the college level, those numbers may well decrease further in the coming years. Even if the precipitous drop in the number of women enrolling in these IT-related majors were to level off this year and begin to grow next year (not a likely scenario), Viall concludes that, "This makes the turn-around at least four years out at the university level."

What do some of the women of the System i ecosystem have to say about all this?

In regard to the Gartner study, Christine Grant, president of Bytware, believes that they study is too vague and "at best gives justification for more research. IT encompasses multiple technical/skilled positions, including research, development, implementation, operations, support, management, etc. In what specific areas of IT are the numbers of women decreasing?"

Explaining why there may be fewer women entering IT today, Grant observes that while computers may be far more prevalent in schools today, the education process about computers and the counseling for technology careers hasn't changed much over the past 20 years. Emphasis is on how to operate computers, navigate the Internet, and generally use them as a tool rather than emphasizing engineering or coding. "Perhaps girls at this age see computers as a means of efficiency for improving a job and not so much as a career. Only through continued exposure to the career opportunities will we see an increase in girls pursuing IT college degrees and career paths."

A key and somewhat controversial conclusion by Gartner is that the declining number of women in IT is indeed a problem, primarily because women, in general, have different characteristics and excel at different things than their male counterparts. For example, women, they say, have better listening skills, better language skills, and better social skills, while men tend to have better complex mental visualization and pattern spotting and are more competitive and more likely to take risks. Further, they maintain that if the pool of employees with the "female" skills declines just at the time when organizations need more and more of those skills to match the need in IT shops for increased communication with users, business partners, and customers. As a result, Gartner recommends that rather than avoid the "stereotyping" of men and women, companies recognize and exploit these differences.

Grant agrees that there will always be general stereotyping of men and women, but she points out (and Gartner, I believe, would not disagree) that each person is an individual and should be considered based on the skills that he/she possesses in relation to the job being applied for. "Stereotypes set aside, companies have an obligation to their employees and shareholders to hire the most qualified person."

Grant points to a recent example in her own company when the firm was looking for a technical support specialist. Of 18 qualified applicants, 11 were men with programming and operations experience, only one of whom had technical support (end user/help desk) skills, and that one man did not really want to do support; he was more interested in operations management. Of the seven women who applied, three had operations and help desk skills--and all of them enjoyed and wanted to continue their support roles. "We hired the woman with the best technical and support skills," says Grant. "Had the man wanted to do support, he most likely would have been our choice because he had 8+ more years IT skills and knowledge."

Such a scenario may be evidence to bolster Gartner's contention that differences exist between the sexes. Note that only one of the 11 men looked at for the position of technical support specialist had help desk skills--and he didn't want to play that role, whereas all seven of the women wanted to be in a support role. It may be tenuous to draw a conclusion that "women like support roles and men don't," but such a generalization (and it is only that) might have some validity that plays out daily in IT shops around the United States if not around the globe.

It is interesting to note, as well, that Grant herself did not start her education or career envisioning herself as an IT person, and although the company she heads is a technology company, that was never her goal. In college she pursued both business law and marketing "when Michael Grant and I established Bytware in June 1986. My background and focus is managing the company, its direction and overall operations, including human resources and the starring of development and technical support departments. It is ironic that I did not pursue technology as my career choice, but I found myself entrenched in the IT world."

I have long believed that many of us don't really choose our careers: We fall into them. Like Grant, I came to the industry almost 40 years ago as an English major with a Music minor. I happened to be working for Time as a relatively low-level employee in the advertising copy acceptance department. Time needed to hire or train programmers, and offered to give me IBM's programmer aptitude test (PAT). I passed with flying colors, Time offered me a much better job (read that $$$), and the rest is history. Thus, I came to the industry by chance and opportunity rather than by college training or specific choice. I would guess that there are many other women out there who also "fell into" the industry.

Such is not the case, however, for Beverly Russell, director of IT for E. D. Smith & Sons in Canada, and a past president of COMMON. Russell reports that she was married at 18, had a daughter at 19, and started university at 23. Following graduation, she started out as MIS supervisor for a shoe company where she progressed to manager and led the acquisition of one of the first System/38s in the area. She later left that company and 20 years ago joined E. D. Smith as a senior programmer analyst, where she progressed to her current position.

Russell notes that Canada's situation regarding the decreasing number of women in IT parallels that of the United States, with the percentage of women in IT dropping to under 25 percent. As a result, she concludes that "it's no wonder that there are fewer women in senior IT roles."

Why is this happening? Russell argues that many young women with whom she talks today don't want to go into IT because "they don't want the commitment outside of business hours that seems to be common in the IT world." There are exceptions, of course, and her daughter is apparently one of them. "This past summer, my daughter and I were headed out shopping for her wedding gown. We were driving down the street when suddenly she said, 'Oh no! I forgot to launch the new version of the Web site.' We quickly turned around, went home, launched the site, and then headed back out on our shopping trip. All I could do was smile and say, 'There goes a chip off the old block.'"

Russell concludes that women are perceived (she stresses "perceived") as being less willing or able to devote long hours to IT roles because of their family and caregiver obligations. "In practice, I really have not found there to be much difference with senior team members."

The operative word there might be "senior." Clearly, women still are the primary caregivers and child raisers in our society. Those who have managed, however, to discover ways to handle this in their lives (no children, no aging family members for whom they have responsibility, the rare stay-at-home spouse willing to take over all or major portions of that role) are likely the ones who do move up the ladder, along with those who are exceptionally skilled at time management. But would this be different than in any other industry in which a significant portion of the work must be performed in the office setting? It's doubtful.

Regarding the generalizations about male and female characteristics, Russell is willing to make one of her own: "I think women have higher expectations of technology and are less willing to accept outages and failures of any kind." That, combined with problem-solving skills and good communication skills, she says, "makes them excellent candidates for management roles in the System i community."

Another System i female professional who chose to enter IT is Eden Watt, vice president of professional services for LANSA's North America operations. Watt, who has responsibility for about 60 consultants working on customer projects, graduated with a computer science degree from the University of Waterloo, went to work with IBM for a few years, and then joined LANSA 15 years ago.

Watt's department is, from all the numbers reported for IT in general, not too much different in its male/female ratio. "In general, the System i has always seemed more conservative, more old-school, than some of its technology counterparts, and I'm not sure if that relates to us having fewer women or not. But my team of consultants, developers, project leaders, architects, and managers consists of about 85 percent men and we don't get a lot of female candidates applying for these jobs." She is quick to add, however, that all of the women they do have on staff are "super smart and professional."

Watt also agrees that it's tough to generalize about traits of men and women, but she does observe that in her experience, "women are more able to admit if they made a mistake, and they are more willing to ask questions. This can ultimately make them more effective at times."

What conclusions, then, can we reasonable draw from the Gartner study and from the anecdotal experiences of these IT women? Few, if any, that are concrete.

The statistical evidence is strong that women are not pursuing careers in IT at the rates they once were, but the reasons for this are less clear. Perhaps it is because IT, once seen as a great way to bring in big bucks and move quickly up the ladder is now viewed as (and probably is) more mundane (a reason why numbers may be down for both sexes). Perhaps it is because women do, indeed, have many more choices today, including more and more professions that have adopted work-from-home or flex-hour models more suited to women's multiple responsibilities. Perhaps it is because the bust sent many of us home for a while, and once there, we realized that we could get by without moving back into the full-time, work-in-the-office rat race that stressed us and our families. And perhaps it is even because (this one is a real hot button of mine) those skills that Gartner identifies as "female"--social skills, communication, language (all that "people stuff")--are not valued and rewarded by many of the near-retirement-age males who set salaries and match the people with the pink slips at time of layoff. Those skills are more typically viewed as expendable in tight times.

I've long been a believer in free markets. If the IT world ever comes around to believing and internalizing Gartner's contention that those skills traditionally associated with women are necessary to the success of IT, salaries that reward these characteristics will rise and policies will be put into place to encourage the recruiting and retention of people with these skills. The women will follow. People follow the rewards they get for the work they do--and rarely is this a simple matter of salary.

But I'm also a skeptic. Rarely in my 40-year career have I felt that my skills in writing, communicating, and relationship building have been truly valued. I've seen way too many times when the areas in which these skills are exercised have been cut because they are not "critical to operations" or "directly revenue producing." Gartner may believe that companies can take steps to reverse the trend of women moving out of the industry. But I don't expect that to happen any time soon--not until the skills that women bring to the party are truly validated.


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