How to attract and retain women in IT: Q&A with Linda Beck

Statistics show that women are less attracted than men to IT careers. Why is that? When choosing a major in college, a lot of women look just at the entry-level positions [available after graduation]. They don't see past software engineering and coding and sitting at a computer all day to the more interesting IT roles, such as project manager, where you interact with people.

Linda Beck, Executive vice president, operations with EarthLink, Atlanta spoke to Computerworld about these issues.

What she does: Over the course of her 20-year career in IT, Linda Beck, who started out as a computer programmer and now holds the top-ranking IT post at EarthLink, has been an avid mentor to other women in IT careers. Women, she says, make natural and standout managers in technology organizations because of their much-practiced communication and people skills. Prior to joining EarthLink, Beck managed engineering and technology organizations at Sybase, GTE and Amdahl.

How can CIOs and IT recruiters attract more women to IT careers?

By changing the nature of entry-level jobs. A lot of companies post programmer and network engineer positions as entry-level jobs and assume that all management opportunities will grow out of these jobs. If you think more creatively about how you put together career paths, you can come up with different entry points, like associate project manager, and other roles that are more appealing to women at the entry level.

Are you saying that women prefer IT roles that involve more communication and interaction?

That was certainly the way I felt. I started out in a programming role where I wasn't interacting with anyone or anything but a computer. I didn't enjoy that. I liked it much better when I moved on to more coordination- and integration-oriented roles. I think women do a better job in a lot of the technology management roles because those roles require good communication, mediation and facilitation skills, and lots of women do all of these things all of their lives in their families.

What's your advice to women who are looking to move up in their IT careers?

Don't have really rigid expectations about how your career path should progress. Migrate toward the things you're good at and volunteer to do them. I volunteered for jobs nobody else wanted, like integration jobs, and I moved up from there. I found it pretty easy to move up because there is such a shortage of people in very technical positions who want to manage and are good at managing. There's also a confidence thing. Women, in their communication style, tend not to take credit for things. In IT, a lot of times you're the only woman in the room and you have to be confident in what you're saying and not be intimidated.

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