Facebook's Sandberg stirs debate among women in IT

Sheryl Sandberg's belief that the women's revolution has 'stalled' and that 'men still run the world' may be true for the tech industry. Women are rejecting IT as a career

Sheryl Sandberg's belief that the women's revolution has "stalled" and that "men still run the world" may be true for IT.

Women are rejecting IT as a career. In the early 1980s, around the time Apple issued its IPO and Time magazine named the PC its Machine of the Year, women accounted for just over 37 percent of the students earning bachelor's degrees in computer science. By 2010, that percentage had fallen to a little more than 17 percent, according to latest available data from the National Science Foundation.

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Sandberg argues that women have to be more assertive, to "lean in," as she writes in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

But women are under-represented in IT, something that's been obvious for years at male-dominated tech conferences. U.S. labor data backs this up. Last year, women held only 26 percent of the jobs in computer-related occupations. That represented a one-percentage-point increase from 2011, but that slight uptick wasn't enough to counter an overall decline in the number of female IT professionals since 2000, when women's share of the computer-related jobs pool hit its peak, at nearly 30 percent, according labor data analyzed by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

Tammi Pirri, vice president of human resources at Black Duck Software, an open-source software services and development firm, sees what's going on first hand. She said that in her eight years at Black Duck, "we've only had one female engineering intern, but we've had 10 male engineering interns."

The decline in women studying computer science in college aside, Pirri believes that Sandberg is right: "Women must find a way to ask for what they want without being perceived in a negative way," she said. "That's the challenge and where women need to lean in and not just assert what they want but show it's deserved."

Jenny Slade, the communications director at NCWIT, noted that many people have criticized Sandberg for her focus on "changing the women rather than changing the system."

"But, frankly, if she'd written a polemic on institutional bias in the workplace, she'd have been criticized for painting women as victims," said Slade, who argues that "changing the status quo starts with a conversation that leads people to take action."

That discussion might include people such as Kim Stevenson, the vice president and CIO of Intel, one of 24 female CIOs in Fortune 100 companies. Stevenson said Intel has done things to help women advance their careers. Among other things, the company offers mentoring programs and opportunities for network-building -- an activity that Sandberg champions. The chip maker's Women at Intel Network has 22 chapters.

"No one likes to feel that they are a unit of one," said Stevenson. She doesn't share Sandberg's view that progress for women has stalled, but she said that she believes more can be done.

Intel's efforts have paid off, said Stevenson. The rate of attrition among women is low, and the company says the number of female employees in mid- to senior-level technical jobs has increased 24 percent since 2004.

Kathy Harris, managing director of Harris Allied, an executive recruiting firm specializing in technology, is among those who believe women need to create a professional support network. "In pure technology departments, men still outnumber women by as much as nine to one," said Harris. "The sole woman in a predominantly male team often feels a sense of isolation."

There are many theories about why women and, especially, girls aren't considering IT-related training. Culture plays a role, some argue.

Karie Willyerd, vice president of learning and social adoption at SAP, wonders if unflattering depictions of engineers in popular culture -- like those in the comic strip Dilbert -- have discouraged girls from thinking about careers in IT. But the cultural message may be shifting, said Willyerd, who points to things like building block maker Lego's efforts to attract girls and expose them to engineering.

"[Software engineering] is not only well paid, but highly flexible and conducive to a woman that wants to work throughout their children's formative years," said Paula Hunter, executive director of the Outercurve Foundation, a nonprofit that offers a forum where open-source and commercial software developers can come together. A high percentage of startups are also founded by engineers, she notes.

Stephanie Reel, senior vice president for management systems and information services at John Hopkins Health System, said that in the healthcare field she has worked for and with men and women "who have been fair, balanced and professional -- in a business world that is often dominated by women." Women have a significant presence in healthcare overall in part because a high percentage of the people who go into nursing are women, she said.

But Reel does agree that the most senior positions in leading U.S. organizations, including those in healthcare, are still mostly held by men. It may be more evolution than revolution at work, she argues.

"Perhaps men are choosing to be more focused on linear career paths," said Reel, "while women are sometimes choosing to be more curious, and more patient, seeking rewards and recognition in different ways -- perhaps seeking to influence the future of an organization more broadly than a man might."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Facebook's Sandberg stirs debate among women in IT" was originally published by Computerworld.

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