The bigger question: why do women and men leave IT

The suggestion that men would rather rescue a failed system than build a stable one is not only insulting, but gender stereotyping at its worst

Kathleen Melymuka's Q&A with researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett created quite a stir. Titled "Why Women Quit Technology Careers," the interview, posted on our Web site last week, has elicited well over 250 reader comments, many of them faulting Hewlett's statistics and conclusions.

I, too, am skeptical of much of what Hewlett had to say. As I've written in the past, I see the declining percentage of women in IT as an unhealthy trend. And since that trend won't be reversed until we ascertain its causes, any discussion of why women leave IT is serious business. Unfortunately, Hewlett made it difficult for us to take her seriously.

Like many of our readers, I took particular exception to Hewlett's "diving catch" scenario.

"Some system is crashing in Bulgaria, so you [being a man] get on the plane in the middle of the night and dash off and spend the weekend wrestling with routers and come back a hero," Hewlett contended. "Women have a hard time taking on those assignments because you can dive and fail to catch [and] a woman cannot survive a failure. ... Women would rather build a system that didn't crash in the first place, but men enjoy that diving catch and have a system of support that allows them to go out on a limb."

The suggestion that men would rather rescue a failed system than build a stable one is not only insulting, but gender stereotyping at its worst.

All of that said, the interview did serve a useful purpose, because it helped raise a point that's every bit as important as the question it set out to answer: Many men say they would leave IT if only they felt they had that option.

I was surprised by the number of comments from men who said that women leave IT because they can and that men typically don't have that alternative because they tend to be the primary breadwinners.

"The real tragedy is IT has become so stressful and taxing, many men would quit the IT environment if they didn't have families to support," one wrote. "However, men generally aren't allowed that choice." Echoed another, who said he has more than 15 years in IT: "I want to get out. I just don't have that luxury. Women [in their] mid to late thirties often have husbands whose careers are taking off and a better social support structure outside of work."

So, perhaps the key question is: Why do so many people in IT, regardless of gender, want out?

One of the reasons Hewlett cited for the exodus of women is "the sheer isolation many women cope with daily. ... Isolation in and of itself is debilitating, with no mentors, no role models, no buddies." Perhaps that offers a clue to the answer to the bigger question at hand.

There is a culture of isolation and seclusion in IT that tends to be accepted without challenge. It's the nature of the work, the argument goes.

"Work in most areas of IT is, by its very nature, isolated," one reader wrote. "Social interaction is lacking in IT. It is not a case of sexist men stripping the workplace of any social aspect to discourage women. It's just the nature of the beast."

"A lot of IT work is performed by isolated individuals, and most of the IT departments I've worked in tend to treat their workers as 'rugged individualists' -- not much team building," another reader chimed in. And the concept of mentoring was met by some male readers with derision.

"I have never, ever had a mentor," wrote one who said he'd been in the software industry for over 20 years. "Neither have I had a role model. Buddies don't help when you fail." Another reader put it this way: "If you need a 'mentor' in IT, you weren't cut out for it."

It's time to challenge the acceptability of the IT profession being a bastion of personal seclusion. Isolation is an unnatural, unhealthy state for human beings, and any culture that endorses it must change. Until it does, too many well-adjusted, contributing members of the profession who can leave, will.

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