Women in technology: A call to action

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

For many women working in IT, such policies present twofold benefits. Not only do they ease the burden of striking a work/family balance, but they mitigate the working-hours stigma many have had to face in the past -- the perception that they are not as committed to the success of the company as others are, regardless of whether they get more accomplished than their clock-watching peers.

"Putting in face time was very important at the beginning of my career," says Linda Ead, director of IT at ITA Software, an airfare pricing company. "You didn't want to be seen walking out of the office at 4:30, because then you were The Mom."

Ead's current position, which she took last year, allows more flexibility. "They encourage telecommuting and flexible hours," she says. "People work all different hours, 24 hours a day -- just whatever works for both the employee and the company."

And for companies offering flex-time and telecommuting, the payoffs can be considerable -- both in the near term and down the line.

"[Flexibility] creates a very productive, efficient, stable, and devoted workforce," says Robin Chase, co-founder of car-share company Zipcar and CEO of Meadow Networks, a consultancy. "Prime caregivers who have such jobs waste little time, value their employer, and will stay with those firms." And when the demands of their home lives reduce over time, Chase says, "they will be ripe and ready to take on those high-profile jobs with commitment." And there's something to be said for having a skilled, experienced employee with intimate knowledge of your company's inner workings on hand to step in and step up, especially given the fierce competition for talent in today's IT marketplace.

Day care is another worthwhile consideration for any company committed to retaining talented women in the long term -- especially those keeping the company's systems humming. For staff, the work/life balance can be more of an issue in IT than in other fields, as maintaining operability around the clock often translates to erratic hours. On-premises day care or flexible spending accounts can help prevent having to replace those who might otherwise be compelled to bow out.

"At an executive level, [paying for] day care tends not to be as big of an issue, but it's different for the average-Joe technician," says Patricia Stewart, a former help desk specialist who left IT shortly after having her second child. "Being a mother of two, having to come into the office in the middle of the night, and having to work weekends just became too difficult."

Stewart, who now works at a day-care center and is trying to figure out whether she can return to IT, is representative of another problem for women weighing the balance between career and family: keeping up with the pace of technology after taking time off.

In an industry in which any given month can herald sweeping changes to how one's job is done, re-entering the workforce can be challenging. Given the skills shortage most enterprises are facing, this problem has a double edge. By backing off rigid skills requirements, assessing previous work experience wisely, and instilling an effective training policy, companies could position themselves to leverage a hidden source of tech talent -- women interested in returning to IT.

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