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January 20, 2006 • Vol.28 Issue 3
Page(s) 1 in print issue

Where Are The Women In IT?
You Have To Look Hard, But They Are Here
When Lucy Sanders first started working in the IT industry close to three decades ago, there weren’t many women in the profession. Sanders didn’t let that stand in her way. During her 24-year business career, she hung tough with the men and put her computer science education to use. She spent time with AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Bell Labs, and Avaya, specializing in systems-level software and solutions. Her work resulted in five different patents, and while at Bell Labs she was awarded the company’s highest technical award, the Bell Labs Fellow Award. Some might call her a trailblazer for all of the young women going into IT today. Sanders just wonders where all of them are.

Unlike other industries that had a serious lack of women participating decades ago, IT has not seen a marked improvement in attracting females to the profession. In fact, according to Sanders, the industry has even been sliding in recruiting the fairer sex. “There was a time when we were in the high 30s of those graduating with IT degrees, but it is declining,” Sanders says. “Overall we’re at 25% nationally. That is alarming a lot of people, and I believethere is a lot of justified concern.”

The lack of women surrounding her in the boardrooms and offices of the business world troubled Sanders so much that she quit her job at Avaya. She wasn’t giving up, just moving on to the University of Colorado, where she hoped she could begin work to improve academic and business recruitment to women.

Together with the help of numerous leaders in the IT academic and business communities, Sanders helped found the National Center for Women in IT, or NCWIT, based out of the University of Colorado. The goal of the organization is to be obsolete in 20 years. Sanders says that the group wants to improve recruiting of women to the point where an organization such as NCWIT is no longer necessary.

How Bad Is IT?

Sanders says that currently NCWIT is in a discovery phase, trying to concurrently improve recruitment of women to the industry while finding out where the industry is statistically. There are lots of academic statistics but a marked lack of information about IT women in the business sector.

Part of the problem, Sanders says, is that individual businesses are loathe to make information public about their affirmative action hiringparticularly when it isn't that great, as is often the case in IT. "Currently, statistics are hard to come by in the industry. We're currently working on forming a workforce alliance, so we can get data out there in composite," Sanders says, explaining that businesses might be willing to cooperate if their specific data isn’t released. “Right now, though, what we have to go off is largely anecdotal.”

Observations & Advice

Fortunately, those women who are already working in the industry usually have an opinion about gender relations in IT and are willing to talk. Meryll Larkin is one of them. Larkin works as a one-woman IT department for a small Seattle shipping company called Alaska Maritime. She has had a passion for computing and technology all her life. As a teenager she was taking classes on FORTRAN in high school. At the time, she did so well she was asked to tutor a male student who was struggling. When that male student was offered an internship over her at the end of the year, she knew something was out of whack with the industry.

The experience was enough to turn Larkin off on the computing industry for many years. When she did come back, she noticed changes in the climate. There were fewer instances of outright discrimination.

She worked through the boom time of the ’90s as a Web developer, but when the bust came, her job prospects diminished. “This is what I’ve seen,” Larkin says. “When the market is slim, the women get pushed out. When the market is building up again, the percentage of women goes back up.”

Larkin believes that during these times, hiring managers may unconsciously stop hiring more women because they are very keen on maintaining strong teams during lean times. Teamwork depends on the ability of teammates to rely upon one another, and managers are usually looking for new hires that they feel can relate well. They may not do it consciously, but if male managers have the choice between a male and a female, they might instinctively go toward the male because he’s more similar to the other team members, Larkin says.

“I’m not saying this is good, or that I like it, but I think this happens,” Larkin says.

Larkin believes that this is unfortunate for many women who can add another dimension to strengthen IT teams. “I’m not sure if there is a difference or not between how a man or a woman does the job,” Larkin says. “But if there is, I think that it may be that women are more patient when communicating. For example, between a system admin and a user, it might be easier to communicate issues, and between team members as well.”

Fortunately for Larkin, she made it through the lean times through perseverance and a network of other local women who were just as passionate about the industry. In her spare time she is involved with numerous user groups and networking circles, including Seattle Linux Chix.

Female Networking

Dawn Fitzgerald, a nine-year IT vet, says that it is this ability of IT women to network that keeps them sane when they are a vocal minority in the profession. Fitzgerald works professionally as manager of PMO Governance for the food supplier Sysco’s corporate office in Houston. She’s also the president of the Houston chapter of the Association for Women in Computing.

“I think it is absolutely critical for women to network with each other,” she says. “Not only for the sake of job-seeking outside your company or to bounce ideas off of one another. It is also just a good place to get validated.”

Fitzgerald believes that while women do just as good of a job as their male counterparts, they tend to doubt themselves more. When on the job they might openly do so, or they might give more group credit for something when a male in the same situation might take more credit for himself. “Many times, women tend to say ‘we’ more when talking about a success,” Fitzgerald says. By networking with other ladies, women can gain the perspective they need to be better about self-promotion, says Fitzgerald, who believes this is a key to moving up the IT food chain.

by Ericka Chickowski

By The Numbers

In 1984 women made up 37% of graduating IT students. By 2003 that ratio had diminished to 25%. The percentage at major research universities was even slimmer, coming in at just 18% in 2003.

In 2003 11% of corporate officers at top 500 technology companies were female.

The National Center for Women in IT’s best estimate is that 29% of the IT workforce in 2004 was female.SOURCE: THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR WOMEN IN IT

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