Women in Technology – What’s the Big Deal? (Part 1)

I love that two of Stephen's latest interviews of industry leaders have been interviews with women. Both Teresa Hennig and Barb Bowman have established themselves as experts in their areas and are great role models for young women contemplating a career in technology. And heaven knows there certainly isn't any great surplus of female role models or mentors in this field!

When I went through for my undergraduate degree in Computer Science in the late 80's/early 90's, there were more women in my class than in any of the classes before us. Even though that still only constituted a handful, it seemed that within a few year the gender discrepancy would disappear altogether. Yet here we are 15 years later and not only is there still a imbalance, but there are actually less women going into technology than ever before. As I ponder this, there are 2 questions that strike me as particularly significant. I'm going to talk about the first question here and save the second for a "Part 2" post.


Why Aren't There More Women in IT?

Two separate events seem to be happening to create this situation. 

First, young women aren't opting to study computer science. I've done a little unscientific research of my own and asked the few female students I've encountered at recent technology events I've attended why they think that more women aren't studying technology and going into technical fields. It was interesting to note that besides the Women in Technology event which was obviously targeting women in the field, most of the female students I encountered weren't in computer science or a technology discipline. Most were at the event with their boyfriend/brother/friend. The consensus among these women was that computer science just isn't attractive to the female gender.

Why is that? It attracted me and my fellow female students in the late 80's. Has something changed? Perhaps it's just that there are so many other alternatives. Or perhaps this next generation has seen the long hours that most IT professionals and developers put into their jobs and have decided to choose an area of study that allows for a better quality of life.

What? They don't think spending hours in a basement somewhere tinkering with code and computer hardware a quality way to spend their life?

Secondly, once in IT careers, more women are leaving. So while less women are entering IT there also seems to be an exodus of women leaving.

CIO Insight recently came out with an article looking at why this is happening. Unfortunately, the executive summary of the article is summed up in these two sentences:

Women are vacating technology positions at a significant rate. But their reasons why are still unclear.

Basically, no one knows why but there is all sorts of speculation. I think that some women become disillusioned. They enter the field thinking that they'll be trailblazers and make a difference and find that it's more difficult and daunting then they thought. Often a women will leave to have children and either stay home to care for her family or decide to change to a career that's more flexible. It's hard to be on call and paged in the middle of the night when you have a family to care for as well. And although some men step into the role of the primary caregiver, it's still primarily the function of the mother, a function many women take great pleasure in and would be loath to give up. As well, getting back into a technology career after taking maternity leave can be difficult simply due to the rapid changes in the industry.

The next question I have to ask is "So what?". Does it really matter that less women are in IT and that it's a male dominated field? Think on that for a bit. I'll post part 2 in a few days and let you know what I think. 

Comments (4)

  1. Sharon says:

    I think there are two key reasons:  For starters, I.T. is a chauvinistic environment (business is in general, but I.T. is above average).  Look to Kathy Sierra’s experiences and why she no longer blogs… men rarely have to deal with the constant sexual references and it does grind you down as you get older (I seem to notice it more now than I did 10 years ago.)

    And then there’s the need for constant reinvention year-on-year.  I remember reading once that in I.T. you need to be prepared to drop at least 20% of your knowledge every year and replace it with new stuff, due to the fast changing nature of the industry.  That takes time, time that is rarely part of your working week (and working weeks in tech are longer than many other office jobs).  There are easier careers to pick…

    I’m in tech.  I worked at Microsoft for 6 years and last year set-up my own company.  I love learning new stuff, so the reinvention bit isn’t a problem (although it is time consuming – I’m writing this at 1am in the morning…)  And, this may sound a bit weird, but my hobby is one of the few sports where men and women compete on equal terms (equestrianism) – it has helped to develop a thicker skin and not be easily intimidated.

    But if I had a daughter, I would actively discourage her from I.T.  If she wasn’t ambitious, there are far easier careers to pick with similar salaries (and low-level I.T. jobs are just plain boring).  And if she were ambitious, the plum roles are now in the creative arena.  Besides the gender issues, engineering is going East.

    I think it does matter that there are few women in I.T. – but in exactly the same way that it matters there are so few women at senior levels within business.  You’ve only got to watch TV like The Apprentice to see why.  Perhaps that’s why women are outnumbering men when it comes to starting your own business…

  2. Ruth Morton says:

    Sharon – while I can’t agree with you that the environment is chauvinistic per se, certainly there are mostly guys in the field, and guys understand and relate better to other guys than to women. So it’s not always the easiest place for a lone woman to work.

    What happened to Kathy Sierra was (imho) the work of a small nasty person or persons and I would hate to see all the men of this world painted with the same brush. It’s the saddest thing to me, that Kathy has stopped blogging. I always looked forward to reading her insights and I think the blogosphere is a little less for her absence. Instead of retreating, I’d like to do what I can to keep this from happening again. While I can’t necessarily stop all the misogynic people from printing nasty things, I can do my part to create a supportive, inclusive atmosphere.

    I also find it sad that you would discourage any daughters from pursuing IT, although this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment expressed. The thing that attracted me to IT was the problem solving aspect and I’ve found, for the most part, that I’ve been able to be very creative in my work. And when I was a low paid IT grunt, I derived a lot of satisfaction from helping people with their computer problems. The opportunties stemming from being the only woman on the team most of the time, have made me become more aware of who I am and who the men I work with are. While it hasn’t always been easy, it certainly hasn’t been dull!

    It would be of great interest to me to be able to slide to that alternate universe where women had a greater influence than men on how computer technology evolved. I wonder how it would differ from what we have today.

    ~ Ruth

  3. Graham Jones says:

    It is a very sad state of affairs when someone feels that they must steer a daughter, or indeed any child, away from what might be their true vocation because of the “environment” that they might find themselves working in. Sadly, there is no question that a lot of what has been said here is true but it definitely won’t change by “running away”.

    I have been wandering around this “planet” for a few years now and if there is one thing that I have learned and that is “know yourself and be yourself, and always encourage others to do the same”. Those who would try and rob you of those most precious things are pathetically sad and, in the greater scheme of things, are irrelevant and must be “ignored”, despite the difficulties. There is no more sure fire way to make a point than to totally “ignore” someone. Sure, it won’t always be easy (especially if it’s the boss) but then no worthwhile change ever is. In the vast majority of cases, ultimately these people will be shown to the world for the gutless, egocentric waste of space that they are.

    It is a fallacy to think that what has been described here wrt women in IT is even remotely novel. I spent many years in the engineering world before IT and the same issues exist there going back a long way. My personal attitude has always been (and I have had to defend it on occasion to the “bad guys”) that you hire the “best person for the job”. I have hired and managed (in engineering and IT) quite a few women over the years and I have also recognized that sometimes that was going to lead to some extra challenges for them and for me as their manager. The easy option was, in many cases, to choose a man. There is no question that “women are different”, not better or worse, just different. Some of those “differences” bring a valuable perspective that often is not easily understood or assimilated by men. Sometimes this leads to a “defensive” reaction.

    I won’t even begin to try and address the “sexist” stuff becaue it is pathetic and small minded beyond description. If the only way that you can get your “jollies” is at the expense of women who feel powerless to defend themselves then I say, “get a life!”. Like Ruth said it would be interesting to see what a role reversal would bring. These so called “macho” guys would probably “die a thousand deaths” and so they should!

    Regretably some women who do rise to positions of authority against the odds often don’t do the female cause any favours. They feel like they have something special to prove and walk around with a giant chip on their shoulders behaving way worse than many of the men that they claim to despise. In other words, if you get there (men or women) go about your business with quiet pride and then you will garner the respect (absolutely vital) that will permit you to make a real difference!

    As a contrast that different cultures demonstrate, I once spent some time working in Saudi Arabia and I couldn’t help but think “you are potentially wasting half of the nation’s talent”, and in China where it was a breath of fresh air to find the best welder was a women, and was respected for it!


    Graham J.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My first posting on this topic asked the question of why there aren’t more women in IT. The next question

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