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Women in IT: How deep is the bench?

November 19, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Jennifer Klopotoski, a Windows systems administrator team lead, has had few female role models in her education and career, but she feels well supported by her company, Ebsco Publishing, an Ipswich, Mass., supplier of databases and e-books.

In a computer science class at Boston's Northeastern University, she recalls being the only woman in a class of 30. "But I wasn't intimidated by that," she says. "I used it to my advantage to build on my strengths."

Klopotoski is one of three females in a 35-member department, and has no women directly up the ladder from her. But early on, she had a good male mentor who recognized her ambition. "I am definitely in a distinct minority, but I'm comfortable with that; it's part of my personality," she says. "I feel the doors are open to me at Ebsco. If you want to get ahead, you'll get there eventually."

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It's difficult [having kids] in the tech field -- you can't just drop what you're doing at 3 o'clock if something is broken.
Jennifer Klopotoski, Ebsco Publishing

Her current roadblock is the work-life balance that many parents with young children struggle with. Klopotoski and her husband, a network manager at a different company, can sometimes find themselves debating over whose network crisis is more important as they figure out which parent can leave work to pick up their two kids, ages 4 and 18 months. "It's difficult in the tech field -- you can't just drop what you're doing at 3 o'clock if something is broken."

It's not lost on her that Yahoo's Mayer made it to the top before starting a family. "Having kids and now wanting to advance, it's a reverse kind of climb," Klopotoski acknowledges. "Am I going to be able to attain what I want? Maybe, but it's going to take five or 10 years."

Do shifting skill sets favor women?

Multiple nonprofits have sprung up, many sponsored by tech corporations, to expose high school girls to programming, app development and more. The list includes The Technovation Challenge sponsored by nonprofit Iridescent, DigiGirlz classes from Microsoft, and Girls Who Code, backed by Google, eBay, General Electric and Twitter. The hope is that these efforts will result in more women studying science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM fields -- in college and graduate school.

In the meantime, there are indications that the shifting nature of high-tech employment may be working in favor of women.

As Denzel, who first made her mark in storage and later in the burgeoning field of big data, notes wryly, "The closer you are to the processor, the more male-dominated this already male-dominated field becomes."

In contrast, the industry shift away from nuts and bolts and toward hybrid skill sets -- including higher-level analytics, process and project management, and user-centric social and mobile computing -- could open up opportunities for women to move laterally into tech departments from other specialties.

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Guy-centric classrooms

A look at the supply chain for IT professionals -- high schools, colleges, universities and graduate schools -- suggests that the gap between top-placed female IT professionals and those coming up the ranks isn't likely to close anytime soon.

That's according to an analysis of educational data from various sources by The National Center for Women & Information Technology. Among other things, the group found that, in 2011, a majority (56%) of the students who took Advanced Placement tests were female, as were 46% of those who took the AP calculus test, but women accounted for just 19% of those who took the AP computer science exam.

Those ratios hold true in college: 57% of students earning an undergraduate degree in 2010 were women, but women made up only 18% of those majoring in computer and information sciences. That's not a one-year blip: The NCWIT found that there was a 79% drop in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science between 2000 and 2011.

Sara Edwards
"If we could say to girls, 'You're going to try this out,' they might discover they really love programming." -- Sara Edwards, Asante Health System

Sara Edwards, an applications analyst at Asante Health System in Medford, Ore., who initially crossed over to IT via a clerical job in healthcare, believes the solution lies in changing how computer science is presented to female students in high school and college.

At her high school, only students who excelled in math, specifically calculus, were encouraged to sign up for the one programming class, which was an elective. "Computer science programs -- all STEM classes, I think -- need to be mandatory, not electives. If we could say to girls, 'You're going to try this out,' and get good teachers that make it fun for them, they might discover they really love programming," Edwards says. "You don't know what you're going to love until you do it."

Edwards is currently a senior pursuing a bachelor's degree in computer information science at Southern Oregon University. She says there are "never more than four or five" women in the classroom. What female professors she does have tend to be on the business side of the discipline; with one exception, the instructors who teach programming are all male. "They're not anti-female, they're very nice, and they'll help you if you need it," Edwards says. "But I do see a need in computer science for more women. We could use some mentoring."

Tracy Mayor

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