Why Every IT Woman Can Benefit From a Peer Network

Finding a group you identify with can lead to immeasurable career and personal gain.

When I started college at Bowling Green State University in the fall of 1978, I was among a large group of women majoring in computer science. Although today there are far fewer women nationwide who choose that field, at the time, about 40% to 50% of the students in my class were female. The women's movement was alive and well, and the demand for computer programmers was so high that employers didn't care what gender you were. The year I graduated, computer science programs nationwide reported record numbers of female graduates.

The climate for women in IT remained strong as I entered the field as a computer programmer in the early 1980s. As I worked my way up the IT chain, however, things began to change. I discovered that I was among only a handful of women in the top ranks, and it wasn't uncommon to be the only woman in a meeting. I began to notice that I didn't have the same type of camaraderie with my male co-workers that I once shared with my female co-workers. I could still share ideas with men, but there were some topics I didn't feel comfortable discussing, such as juggling child care responsibilities or finding time to work out at the gym. I figured this was just one of the prices that had to be paid for success in IT.

Despite this, I neglected seeking out the company of other women in the field. I figured I simply didn't have the time, and my career felt so stable that I never thought I might move to a different company or pursue a new field. But several years later, I was introduced to the concept of peer networking and the power it could hold for women. There are a variety of ways to network, and I've become familiar with a few specific types. Here's a look at the benefits they offer.

Fewer Women Choosing IT

Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of women earning four-year degrees in computer science has declined.

1984: 37.2%
1985: 36.9%
1986: 35.8%
1987: 34.8%
1988: 32.5%
1989: 30.8%
1990: 30.2%
1990: 30.2%
1991: 29.6%
1992: 28.9%
1993: 28.2%
1994: 28.6%
1995: 28.5%
1996: 27.6%
1997: 27.2%
1998: 26.9%
1999: Not available
2000: 28%
2001: 27.6%
2002: 27.5%
2003: 27%
2004: 25%
2005: 22.2%
2006: 20.4%

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

1. Formal networking groups. These organized groups meet regularly and provide a career-oriented agenda and an excellent way to make contacts in the industry. There are a variety of local, regional, national and international IT groups from which to choose. I belong to Women in Technology International and a central Indiana group called Women & Hi Tech.

Joining formal groups allows you to meet amazing and powerful women and hear from some of the top female leaders in the field. The leadership opportunities within such groups are also a great benefit. Any formal networking group is worthwhile, but groups designed for women explore topics from a female point of view. Subjects such as how best to create a work/life balance if you're a 70-hour-a-week CIO often take on an entirely different meaning for women than they do for men.

2. Informal networking groups. These aren't part of an established organization and can meet on whatever schedule the members choose. I'm part of a group that formed unexpectedly when one of the members was writing an article about high-powered women in IT. She wanted to get a group of senior women in IT in Indianapolis together to talk over dinner, and we enjoyed the conversation so much that more than six years later, we still meet and have invited other women to join in.

We don't have an agenda; we talk about anything on our minds -- jobs, dreams, families, hobbies, whatever. Some members are still in IT, and some, like me, have moved to other careers. The members have all been in the trenches and can understand the challenges, frustrations and rewards of CIOs. We feel comfortable sharing ideas and getting advice on jobs and even on how and why to change careers. I can't tell you how important my group was to me when I made my latest career change from CIO to professor. Even though we are all busy professionals, we make our dinner meetings a priority.

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