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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Glass ceiling or sticky floor?

Tina Rourk, CIO of Wyndham Vacation Ownership, oversees about 300 employees and estimates that about 30% of her staff, including two of her four direct reports, are women. Rourk sees strong opportunity for the women, particularly in hospitality, long a female-friendly field.

But at the same time, she shies away from putting too much emphasis on gender, noting that her first priority is always to hire the best candidate for a position. Rourk says that worked for her coming up in the field and she would hope it works for the women coming behind her.

"I knew IT was male-dominated from the outset. That didn't change the decisions that I made," Rourk says. "You have to build relationships -- that's my responsibility, whether it's a male or female colleague."

If anything, Rourk is concerned that women working in the male-dominated environment of IT might unintentionally be backing off when they should be pushing ahead. "Is it the glass ceiling or the sticky floor that's the problem?" she asks rhetorically. "You need to make sure others know what you want; you need to raise your hand for further opportunities. I had to learn to do that."

In the end, that's the message that may resonate most deeply with the newest generation of women in high tech, people like 29-year-old Laura Beth Denker, a senior software engineer who has been in the minority ever since her days at the Rochester Institute of Technology -- but who seemingly pays it no nevermind.

True, Denker works at Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, which skews heavily female and sponsors hacker grants for women interested in programming. But she politely turns her nose up at talk of soft skills or future-forward specialties like communication or business analytics. She is pure programmer and proud of it: Her LinkedIn skill set for Etsy consists of a string of nouns like Apache, Chef, Cobbler, Ganglia, Gearman, Graphite, LDAP, Nagios, PEAR, PECL, Postfix, Racktables, RPM and Yum.

Denker also shrugs off any suggestion that she is a next-gen superstar -- she insists her previous employer, Google, plucked her resume out of a pile from Monster.com.

She has studied and worked in male-dominated organizations her whole life -- she estimates her current workgroup's male-to-female ratio is 8-to-1 -- but when asked about future opportunities, she turns the question on its ear.

"It's not really, 'Can I get a job at this company?' -- it's 'Why would I want to work there?' " she explains. "You have to think about yourself and go where you feel comfortable. If people want to be brogrammers or whatever, fine, but they're missing out on more than half the universe."

Despite the persistent lack of gender parity in IT, younger women have managed to absorb a kind of post-gender mindset that anticipates the tech future before it happens.

"I wouldn't want anyone looking at me as a female engineer, because I'm an engineer, period," says Denker. "I've never had a manager, man or woman, who's looked at me as just a female, which is a good thing. My work speaks for me, so look at my work."

Research assistance by Mari Keefe and Sharon Machlis.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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