Women in IT: How deep is the bench?

Superstar women lead IT at some of the biggest global corporations, yet the path to the top isn't clear for the next generation.

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Beyond making it easier to recruit other women, adding women to engineering and design teams makes those teams better able to address the needs of Xerox's customer base, which worldwide includes more women than men. Just one example: Women are more likely to be users of the company's multifunction office devices, says Vandebroek.

Overall, heterogeneous workgroups are more innovative, creative and productive than "just a bunch of people all thinking the same way" -- a crucial concern for organizations like Xerox, where innovation has a direct impact on the bottom line, says Vandebroek.

Because her company has for many years sponsored large and active caucuses that support women at Xerox, as well as subgroups for technical women and women of color, among other minorities, Vandebroek feels she does have a deep bench from which to promote future female talent. (For other likely candidates, see the companies with the highest percentages of women on Computerworld's 2012 list of 100 Best Places To Work in IT.)

But that's not the case at every organization, she says -- and that's an assessment shared by a number of young, midcareer and executive-level tech women. Their general takeaway: IT has come a long way in its attitudes toward women, but there's still a long way to go.

Midcareer retention

As someone who has been recruiting developers and other tech employees in the New York area for the past 17 years, Debbie Madden counts herself among the ranks of senior technical women who are dismayed by the glacial pace of change.

"I just led a panel on how to become a developer. There were 150 people in the room, and if more than five of them were women, I'd be surprised," says Madden, executive vice president at software developer Cyrus Innovation. "When I was majoring in engineering, there was a lot of hope that women were finally starting to take on more of these STEM degrees. People were very hopeful, but I'm not seeing that now."

Madden worries that women might be taking themselves out of the mix early on in the game over work-life concerns. "One big problem is retention," she says. "Many women that I know, even when they're in their 20s, they choose careers that are going to allow them to have children. But when you're a developer working on a project, you need to be there five long days a week."

The up-all-night "brogrammer" culture at some startups doesn't help, she says. "No one's intentionally preventing female engineers from working at those companies; it's just an overall culture that's not appealing to a lot of women."

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