The Shrinking Female IT Workforce

Women in mid-management are leaving IT at an alarming rate. The tough economy may be a help -- or a hindrance -- in keeping them.

Last year, programmer Nancy Sheets was forced to take a 20% pay cut along with the rest of the IT department at a Wisconsin-based plastics company, while everyone else working there took a 10% reduction in salary. IT staff also acquiesced to two weeks of unpaid vacation, while the rest of the company took one week of unpaid leave -- all to ensure that the four IT employees kept their jobs.

"I was happy to keep my job, but also I couldn't afford the 20% cut with my husband being unemployed," says Sheets, 55, the only woman in her IT department. Her husband, who had worked as an IT manager at a different company, has been out of work for 14 months.

Sheets likes her work, but she wonders what a job outside of IT would be like. For now, however, she's had to put such musings on hold. "I'm supporting the family," she notes.

Many women in IT found themselves in a similarly precarious position in 2009. In January, the unemployment rate for men held at 10%, while it hovered at 7.9% for women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. So it's not surprising that women are leaving their jobs at slightly lower rates than they were in previous years, according to the Center for Work Life Policy.

What's more, about 39% of women are outearning their husbands. "When the woman is the primary breadwinner, she's also less likely to leave her job," says Laura Sherbin, director of research at the New York-based CWLP.

But for women in IT, the salary picture tends to be less rosy. IT salaries for both men and women stagnated in the past year, according to Computerworld's 2010 Salary Survey, and earnings disparities between men and women remained in place.

While male CIOs earned an average of $177,843, female CIOs earned $148,965. Male application development managers earned an average of $114,610, while women with the same title earned $106,679.

Perhaps more alarming, the average bonus for women fell 15.5% in 2009, while the average bonus for men in IT declined 5.6%, according to Computerworld's survey.

"Women don't leave IT jobs primarily because of pay disparities, but salary does play a role in the subtle, unconscious biases often held by IT leaders," says Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) at the University of Colorado.

"One way biases play out is evaluations, performance reviews; that definitely affects the salaries. There is that discrepancy, but it's not as great between men and women in technology as it is overall," Ashcraft says.

Lower salaries lead to women dropping out of the IT workforce when child care and other expenses start outweighing the income benefits. "Women make these kinds of calculations. Certainly a lower salary is not helping them stay in the workforce," Sherbin says.

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