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Women in IT

Prospects for women in IT are grim. Here's why that matters

I was fascinated by many aspects of Windows IT Pro's Industry Survey 2004, but by nothing so much as the gender disparities the survey touches on. Of the survey's 2722 respondents, only 22 percent, or 599 respondents, are female. Here at Windows IT Pro, we know that IT is male oriented and that the majority of our readers are men. But the survey statistics still surprised me, so I read through the survey's write-in comments for insight. The following comment was submitted by a male respondent who seems to be as taken aback by the situation as I am: "I guess I'm surprised that gender comes into play in the question. Gender does not make someone smart, talented, or good at his/her job. Training, intelligence, and ability are the important qualities to consider."

But the unfortunate truth is that gender does come into play in the IT profession. I set out to discover the answer to two questions that our survey raised for me about women in IT: One, is the situation really this bad? And two, if it is, then why? But I realized that if I were to devote space in our fledgling Your Career column to the answers to these questions, I needed to explain why I think it's appropriate to do so. After I answer to those two questions, I'll show you why and how those answers affect your career, whether you're a man or a woman.

First, the Bad News
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's "Occupation by Sex: 2000" summary report, I discovered that in 2000, fewer than 30 percent of US citizens employed in computer and mathematical occupations were women. Even more disturbing is the steady decrease over the past 10 years in the number of bachelor degrees in computer sciences awarded to women. For example, data from the US Department of Education shows that in 1994—1995, 28.4 percent of bachelor degrees in computer science were awarded to women. In 1996—1997, that percentage shrank to 27.2, and in 1997—1998 it was 26.7. (This picture isn't representative of women in all scientific and technical fields. In 1995—1996, the percentage of bachelor degrees awarded to women in the biological life sciences, engineering, and physical sciences increased significantly.)

An Unpleasant Reality
So, what's going on? In the groundbreaking book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (MIT Press, 2001), the research of authors Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher indicates that societal, familial, and scholastic pressure on women discourages an interest in computer science beginning in childhood. The relatively few women who resist or escape these influences are then further estranged from the field by the stereotypical male "geek culture" in computing. Further, the National Council for Research on Women has shown that girls are more successful in math and science programs that incorporate cooperation and a hands-on approach than they are in programs that stress the traditional male values of competition and individual learning, and also that girls tend to use computers differently than boys do.

The Part About You
So how does this situation affect your career? Consider the overall health and viability of IT professions in general. As we reported in our December 2004 issue ("IT Pros at Work," InstantDoc ID 44437), the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of computer systems specialists to grow more than 30 percent by 2012. If you're concerned about outsourcing now, what might be the consequences of not having enough qualified US IT professionals to fill positions created in the future? How will the nature of the profession—and business itself—change if US business has to rely on contract foreign labor to fill jobs that go begging simply because we aren't helping women realize their potential as computer system professionals?

Think, too, about the teams and projects you work with daily. How limited are you in effectively interacting with your female customers because you don't fully understand the problems they might face in working with technology? Would having a qualified woman on your team to brainstorm with make you more effective? If you're a software developer and you want to create a product that meets the needs of all users, would working with a female IT pro who can help you understand how women might use the product help you come up with a better design?

Next time, this column will turn to offering practical solutions to career questions. But periodically, I'll revisit the career-focused problems of gender equity in IT. I'd like to know whether you think there's a problem, and if so, your suggestions for addressing it. Until then, here's one final question to ponder: Is the next William Hewlett, Tim Berners-Lee, or Linus Torvalds a 10-year-old girl living somewhere in the United States?

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