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.]
“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.
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.