Why women are leaving IT

Critics contend society is not encouraging girls to study IT. Of the few women who enter tech, nearly half leave. Why?

There are several theories floating around about why there aren't more women in IT - and it's a pressing matter, considering the impending labour shortage. Some claim that IT doesn't appeal to women, or girls just aren't good at maths. But when it comes to IT, are men really from Mars and women really from Venus?

Many industry experts agree there are differences - but it's the industry that needs to change, not women.

The Athena Factor, a recent report published by the Harvard Business Review, examined the brain drain issue of women in science, engineering and technology.

"What they found was that over half of the women in these fields eventually left their jobs, most of them in their mid '30s," said Jenny Slade, communications director with NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology). Reasons ranged from working in a hostile male culture, to not being aware of a career path to the top, to not having the flexibility to juggle small children at home with a fast-track career.

"What surprised us is there's no lack of love for their careers, and they're not leaving because they don't like their work," she said. "They're leaving because they're finding the work incompatible with the environment in which they have to work."

IT has been taught the same way

Stemming this exodus of women by just 25 per cent would add more than 200,000 women into the IT workforce in the US. "They're trained, they're skilled, so losing them comes at a huge cost," she said. "Not just an opportunity cost, but an innovation cost."

And women aren't shying away from hard sciences either. In the US, women are earning half of all maths degrees, more than half of all chemistry degrees and about 60 per cent of all biology degrees. Women also comprise half of all incoming medical school classes.

So why aren't they jumping into IT?

"The way that technology is marketed to them, frankly, is completely unappealing," said Slade. "Computer science has been taught the same way for almost 30 years." Women have few role models and are forced to feel that if they're not compatible, if they don't learn well within the computer science paradigm that's been established at the academic level, then they're not right for computer science. "We need to stop trying to change the women and realize that it might actually be beneficial...if we change the way it's taught," she said.

And this starts at an early age, by trying to make technology cool. Deirdre Athaide, who studied mathematics and computer science at the University of Waterloo, joined IBM in 2004 and now has a patent in digital rights management. It was through IBM that she became involved with the Excite girls' summer camp program. There are 53 camps worldwide.

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