Women in technology: A call to action

Righting the ongoing workforce imbalance is vital for the long-term health and success of IT

A quick scan of almost any IT department -- from the trenches to the corner office -- confirms it: Women who embrace technology as a lifelong career remain a rare breed. To be sure, opportunity for women in technology has advanced in the past few decades, as have education initiatives aimed at leveling the playing field, but for every woman rising to prominence or embarking on a profession in IT, there seems to be another opting out of her career in technology.

It may not be surprising that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women filled only 26.7 percent of computer and mathematical positions in 2006. What’s troubling is that this percentage has been declining for some time. And the descent has been nearly universal across all IT job categories. For example, women accounted for 16.6 percent of all network and computer systems administrator positions in 2006, down from 23.4 percent in 2000. At the management level, the imbalance persists. Among computer and IS managers, for example, 27.2 percent were women in 2006. By contrast, women held 66 percent of all social and community service management jobs last year.

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

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“Technology is definitely a tough environment for women,” says Carolyn Leighton, co-founder and chairwoman of Women in Technology International (WITI), an advocacy group. “It’s definitely way behind.”

What remains unspoken, however, is the effect that this increasing imbalance will have on the long-term prospects for IT. More than a matter of stemming the tide of the ongoing skills shortage, encouraging women to get involved in technology is fast becoming an imperative for establishing the kinds of adaptive, collaborative, and versatile enterprises that will thrive in a fast-paced global economy. Now more than ever, the onus is on IT to play an active role in ensuring that more women choose technology as a career path -- and thrive in it.

Engendering balance
Much has been made of the historical role of educational biases in discouraging women from entering technology as a profession. But for those who have already chosen IT, the particular rigors and culture of a fast-paced career in technology -- not to mention how a traditional career path in this male-dominated industry is laid out -- are doing no small part in dissuading them from making a career-long commitment to IT. Chief among those derailing factors is a challenge particular to many women: raising a family while maintaining a career in technology.

According to a recent joint study by Catalyst, the Families and Work Institute, and the Center for Work and Family at Boston College, 74 percent of women executives have a spouse/partner who is employed full-time. By contrast, 75 percent of male executives have a spouse/partner who stays home full-time -- strong evidence that, despite progress in attitudes toward domestic workloads, women still predominantly bear the brunt of striking a balance between career and home. And when it comes to advancing in the tech industry while starting a family, timing can be a significant barrier.

“In order to get to the top of the food chain, you have to own something big and ugly -- an ERP implementation, for example, or a slot machine implementation at a casino,” says Carol Pride, CIO of Pinnacle Entertainment, a gaming company that operates casinos throughout North and South America. “Often, the first big-and-ugly project coincides with the time one is trying to raise young children.”

Pride, who credits her “unusually supportive spouse” as instrumental to her success, cautions against trivializing the balance between work and family at this critical junction. “Women often realize, rationally, that children are more important than companies,” she says. “But if you don’t do the big and ugly, then it ends up hindering you later.”

Proving one’s professional fortitude through this rite of passage has long been a tradition in IT, and though results-driven promotion incentives are certainly justifiable, many companies stand to lose out in the long term by keeping their project philosophy “big and ugly” -- especially those that fail to play a role in helping employees strike a fruitful work/family balance. And the chief step companies can take to ensure that experienced, knowledgeable workers stay onboard through this life transition is to offer telecommuting and flexible work hours whenever possible.

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“Twenty years ago, it was impossible for a woman to be on the soccer field and at a meeting at the same time, but now technology makes that possible,” says Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company. During her tenure, Fiorina says, HP expanded its flex-time, job-share, and work-at-home programs. “Goodness, if we can outsource call centers in India, we can help people have virtual offices and flexible work hours.”

For many women working in IT, such policies present twofold benefits. Not only do they ease the burden of striking a work/family balance, but they mitigate the working-hours stigma many have had to face in the past -- the perception that they are not as committed to the success of the company as others are, regardless of whether they get more accomplished than their clock-watching peers.

“Putting in face time was very important at the beginning of my career,” says Linda Ead, director of IT at ITA Software, an airfare pricing company. “You didn’t want to be seen walking out of the office at 4:30, because then you were The Mom.”

Ead’s current position, which she took last year, allows more flexibility. “They encourage telecommuting and flexible hours,” she says. “People work all different hours, 24 hours a day -- just whatever works for both the employee and the company.”

And for companies offering flex-time and telecommuting, the payoffs can be considerable -- both in the near term and down the line.

“[Flexibility] creates a very productive, efficient, stable, and devoted workforce,” says Robin Chase, co-founder of car-share company Zipcar and CEO of Meadow Networks, a consultancy. “Prime caregivers who have such jobs waste little time, value their employer, and will stay with those firms.” And when the demands of their home lives reduce over time, Chase says, “they will be ripe and ready to take on those high-profile jobs with commitment.” And there’s something to be said for having a skilled, experienced employee with intimate knowledge of your company’s inner workings on hand to step in and step up, especially given the fierce competition for talent in today’s IT marketplace.

Day care is another worthwhile consideration for any company committed to retaining talented women in the long term -- especially those keeping the company’s systems humming. For staff, the work/life balance can be more of an issue in IT than in other fields, as maintaining operability around the clock often translates to erratic hours. On-premises day care or flexible spending accounts can help prevent having to replace those who might otherwise be compelled to bow out.

“At an executive level, [paying for] day care tends not to be as big of an issue, but it’s different for the average-Joe technician,” says Patricia Stewart, a former help desk specialist who left IT shortly after having her second child. “Being a mother of two, having to come into the office in the middle of the night, and having to work weekends just became too difficult.”

Stewart, who now works at a day-care center and is trying to figure out whether she can return to IT, is representative of another problem for women weighing the balance between career and family: keeping up with the pace of technology after taking time off.

In an industry in which any given month can herald sweeping changes to how one’s job is done, re-entering the workforce can be challenging. Given the skills shortage most enterprises are facing, this problem has a double edge. By backing off rigid skills requirements, assessing previous work experience wisely, and instilling an effective training policy, companies could position themselves to leverage a hidden source of tech talent -- women interested in returning to IT.

Changing the face of IT

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Whether you’re a woman returning to, entering, or attempting to advance in the IT ranks, landing a prime position oftentimes proves to be an against-odds affair. And it’s the very culture of hiring that many companies are reassessing to address this issue, not only in an effort to level the playing field for women and other under-represented demographics but also to ensure a more balanced, diverse, and versatile workforce.

“People are more comfortable with people who are like them, so it’s hard in a male-dominated field for people to accommodate difference,” Fiorina says. “While I was at HP, we instituted metrics for improving diversity. If you don’t measure something, people don’t think it’s important.”

But metrics, or quotas for that matter, don’t always guarantee the kind of organizational ethos that benefits all parties involved -- most notably, the company.

“Because most companies are based on a male model and have been for many decades, the men don’t get the kinds of business contribution women can give,” WITI’s Leighton says. “They often do this just to meet requirement codes.”

But, Leighton adds, the current nature of IT actually calls for what are considered stereotypical female characteristics. No longer an island within the company, IT is integral to other departments and requires employees who communicate well. “Now IT goes across all departments globally,” she says. “And women by nature are collaborative consensus builders.”

Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president of datacenter, switching, and security at Cisco, agrees. “We generally assume that high tech means that all you’re doing is working with bits and bytes, but there’s also the aspect of taking technology and making it more understandable in the world,” she says. “And the attributes of that X chromosome are naturally lent in that direction.”

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More than a passive component in the hastening evolution of the enterprise, IT is increasingly being called on to initiate change across the company. And it’s the organizations that build workforces able to thrive in constant flux that will come out ahead in the coming years. Many believe this context plays to women’s strengths.

“Women are good at accepting change and creating change, which is important in the marketplace,” says Sandy Carter, vice president of SOA and WebSphere strategy at IBM.

“I think our innate skills at a stereotypical level really help the market,” agrees Karenann Terrell, CIO at health-care company Baxter International. “The skills that we have -- being able to juggle things, multitasking -- reflect the environment we’re in now.”

That said, succumbing to stereotypes when reviewing candidates misses the point. The key is to keep in mind how IT is evolving, survey your current roster, and hire strategically to achieve a balanced set of tangible and intangible skills.

“A good manager should constantly be thinking what their group needs for balance, but real people bring a variety of strengths and weaknesses to the blend,” says Larry Lang, vice president and general manager of the mobile wireless group at Cisco and, notably, a male member of the Society of Women Engineers. “To get the blend right, you have to think beyond stereotypes.”

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And when it comes to getting the right blend, nothing appeals to higher-ups more than hiring policies that move the bottom line.

“We decided as a group of women inside IBM that saying that we’re different, or that we need different things, is the wrong way to approach men,” says IBM’s Carter, who recently formed the Superwomen’s Group within the company’s software group. “Most men -- most people -- want to know, ‘What’s the value to me, and what’s the impact this is going to have on my business?’ So we focused on the impact that [hiring women] would have on business.”

But to lure women back into the technology fold, companies will have to put in the PR work necessary to convince them that the face of IT is changing.

“There are certain things I think are very important for management, leadership, and success in the 21st century: the ability to collaborate with others, the ability to communicate clearly, and the ability to see the forest and not get lost in the trees,” Fiorina says. “I certainly think many, many, many women possess the three characteristics that I describe, and they enjoy it. And if you talk to women about why they have moved away [from IT], it’s often because they have viewed it as too isolating. But technology is becoming more of a team sport. I think women will be attracted to that.”

The mentoring mandate
And when it comes to bringing and keeping women on board, there’s no substitute for woman-to-woman mentoring. According to the Catalyst study, women who list another woman as the most helpful person in their careers are more likely than other women to have reached the top one or two reporting levels in a company. “Thus, while it is true that support and mentoring by higher-level executives -- both male and female -- are essential to developing leaders, we find that women mentoring women is of special importance,” the study says.

“I consider it part of my job,” IBM’s Carter says. “If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here where I am today.”

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