How to narrow IT's gender gap

Winning the hearts and minds of the industry's top female talent could be easy

What do women want? Sigmund Freud asked this question a century ago; he never answered it. Unfortunately, IT managers are asking this same question today about women in the technology workforce, and they don't have an answer either.

That's the bad news. The good news: The answer is hiding in plain sight for technology firms that care to look for it, because organizations in non-IT industries are already proving that taking the right actions can help in attracting the nation's best and brightest women.

Conversely, IT managers who fail to recognize and apply these proven human resources techniques will never win the hearts and minds of their industry's top female talent -- and that puts them at a critical competitive disadvantage.

Women in tech

As recently as 20 years ago, the percentage of women in IT was a drop in the employment bucket compared with men -- roughly 15 percent of the total workforce.

But the emergence and growth of enterprise resource planning technology spawned a slew of new IT jobs. Demand soon outpaced supply, and hiring managers recognized women as a fresh pool of talent. They increasingly drew from it, accelerating women's entrance into the field.

However, women's presence in IT has hit a holding pattern. The 2005 Current Population Survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that only three out of every 10 computer scientists, systems analysts, computer support specialists and operations research analysts are women.

Worse, fewer women are expected to enter IT. The BLS estimates that while the technology workforce is at an all-time high, the percentage of women in the field has dropped by more than 7 percent. In addition, the proportion of female undergraduates interested in computer science is at its lowest point since the 1970s, according to a recent study by the University of California, Los Angeles.

There are several reasons for the industrywide slump. One is that women who do join the technology ranks may start in technology but follow a different path that provides them with more flexibility later in their careers.

Another is that taking time away from the workforce, such as for maternity leave, puts workers on a steeper learning curve when they return and delays their advance up the career ladder. Consequently, women have lagged behind men in achieving high-level positions in IT.

In addition to a lack of tenure, many women have hit a glass ceiling when striving for directorships or CIO roles, according to Windy Warner, an executive coach specializing in working with IT executives and professionals.

"Women create part of the problem themselves because we tend not to be as confident in our abilities as men are," Warner says. "We don't let management know what we have contributed, we don't ask for promotions and raises as easily as men do, and we don't assert ourselves into leadership positions on teams as much as we could. As a result, we are overlooked when it comes to promotions."

The end result: a very low female presence among C-level executives, which in turn means fewer mentors and role models for younger women seeking tech positions.

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