Activism provides competitive advantage for IT

Capitalize on the intangible skills women have to offer by making them a central part of your IT team

Encountering another woman working in technology was a rare event for me when I started out in IT many years ago. In the years since, women have made significant strides, sometimes against great odds, proving their mettle as both tech execs and engineers.

Despite these well-earned gains, however, the percentage of young women embracing IT has been in steady decline for some time. So much so that women make up a quarter of today’s U.S. IT workforce, down from 37 percent in the mid-1980s. Collaborating with women on a technical project has once again become a rare occurrence.

[See also our slideshow: Women leaders discuss their roles in IT.]

A fly-on-the-wall perspective of any on-campus discussion or noontime power lunch will reveal the principal reasons why women are opting for professions other than IT these days. The glass ceiling, for one, remains firmly entrenched across a large portion of the technology sector, perhaps more so than in other industries. Women don’t want to invest in a technology education only to be held back in their chosen career path, especially given the wave of jobs moving offshore -- a concern for all IT workers, to be sure, but when your opportunities are reduced, you’re more likely to be among those whose positions move elsewhere.

More troubling for IT is that many women are choosing professions they believe provide the greatest latitude to innovate freely and openly -- and IT is no longer considered one of them. While the 1990s saw a fair number of women innovating within the tech industry, these days the common belief is that there are far fewer outlets for women to work creatively within IT, making other occupations more compelling to those driven to deliver new solutions to practical problems. Not surprisingly, the industry stands to suffer significantly because of this trend.

By all accounts, the world is going flat, and the dynamics of the global workforce call for organizational structures to change with the times. Competing in today’s global IT environment requires an organizational chart rife with intangibles -- not just a checklist of technical skills. And as the tenets of Web 2.0 continue to take hold, women will be an increasingly vital component of any winning IT strategy, as they tend to be effective communicators who thrive in highly distributed and collaborative environments.

If you are a woman working in IT today, there is much you can and should do. Mentor other women either on the job or at your local university. Make internal and external networking a mandatory and ongoing task for you. Join one or more of the several organizations and mailing lists devoted to improving the career landscape for women in IT. Organizations who share this mission include Women in Technology International, Wise-Women, and WorldWIT.

IT leaders, male and female alike, should seek out women within their organizations and find ways to activate the intangible skills they offer. Enterprises that are able to tap into the hidden expertise of their employees -- especially those underrepresented in the workforce -- will find new and innovative approaches to solving business problems while also stiffening competition with rivals.