Women in technology: A call to action

Women who embrace technology as a lifelong career remain a rare breed

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.

"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.

"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."

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