IT's vanishing women

The IT profession in many ways seems like a good fit for women, but the industry has a hard time attracting them and keeping those who do enter IT

IT is a growing profession, and one that requires skills that women not only possess but oftentimes excel at. And yet women remain a distinct minority within the profession. Why is that, and how can it be changed?

Computing should be an attractive field of study for anyone. Nonetheless, although recent Bureau of Labor Statistics findings show that computing-related jobs are growing at a rate almost double that of all other fields, fewer students are enrolling in computing majors. That trend led the BLS a few years ago to project that by 2018 approximately half of all jobs requiring extensive computing expertise will go begging for lack of qualified IT professionals.

Sometimes, one crisis can resolve another. The looming shortage of IT professionals could spur an increase in the number of women in the profession and finally bring their participation rate in IT to levels consistent with other professions. The current disparity is striking. According to the BLS, in 2012, women held 57% of all professional occupations, but only 26% of professional computing occupations.

There is no obvious reason for this state of affairs. Women have technical skills comparable to men's, and they bring other advantages to the IT workplace. Research published in the American Educational Research Journal (Riegle-Crumb, King, Grodsky & Muller, 2012) demonstrates that women significantly outperform men in college-level communication skills, which is a skill often at the top of employers' wish lists. Women also outperform their male counterparts in science and math, thus combining traditional IT skills with soft skills, giving women a distinct edge. IT employers also look for IT personnel who can interact with their non-technical employees empathetically, yet another skill set at which women excel.

IT leadership also benefits from the inclusion of women. Female leaders have been shown to more willingly embrace change and innovation than their male peers, a crucial trait in a postmodern, global world where technology changes rapidly. Where managerial authority once resided in local access to political or military power, the old hierarchy of authority has become diffuse and flattened. Managers now occupy a less sharply defined role of authority and are effectively placed "more in the role of coach or teacher than previous models of leadership" (Eagly & Carli, 2003). Women "manifest a somewhat more democratic (or participative) style and a less autocratic (or directive) style [of leadership] than men" do, displaying ideal characteristics for post-modern leadership (Eagly & Carli, 2003).

Yet, with the number of students entering and completing degrees in the IT field steadily falling, female students are showing the greater drop when compared to male students (Ashcraft & Blithe, 2010), down 37% from 1985 enrollments. There was an uptick in women enrolling in computer-related courses in the early 2000s as a result of aggressive recruitment on the part of universities for female students, but that increase has since fallen off. And while the industry has done poorly in attracting women to the field, it has also shown an inability to retain those who have entered it. A 2004 study by the National Center for Women & IT revealed that a large number of women who already occupy upper-level IT-related positions are leaving the industry at a startling rate, with "56% of technical women leav[ing] at the 'mid-level' point" (Ashcraft & Blithe, 2010) of their careers, a rate almost double that of equivalent male colleagues.

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