How to Narrow IT's Gender Gap

What do women want? Sigmund Freud asked this question a century ago; he never answered it. Unfortunately, IT managers are asking this same question today about women in the technology workforce, and they dont have an answer either.

Thats the bad news. The good news: The answer is hiding in plain sight for technology firms that care to look for it, because organizations in non-IT industries are already proving that taking the right actions can help in attracting the nations best and brightest women.

Conversely, IT managers who fail to recognize and apply these proven human resources techniques will never win the hearts and minds of their industrys top female talent -- and that puts them at a critical competitive disadvantage.

Women in tech

As recently as 20 years ago, the percentage of women in IT was a drop in the employment bucket compared with men -- roughly 15% of the total workforce.

But the emergence and growth of enterprise resource planning technology spawned a slew of new IT jobs. Demand soon outpaced supply, and hiring managers recognized women as a fresh pool of talent. They increasingly drew from it, accelerating womens entrance into the field.

However, womens presence in IT has hit a holding pattern. The 2005 Current Population Survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that only three out of every 10 computer scientists, systems analysts, computer support specialists and operations research analysts are women.

Worse, fewer women are expected to enter IT. The BLS estimates that while the technology workforce is at an all-time high, the percentage of women in the field has dropped by more than 7%. In addition, the proportion of female undergraduates interested in computer science is at its lowest point since the 1970s, according to a recent study by the University of California, Los Angeles.

There are several reasons for the industrywide slump. One is that women who do join the technology ranks may start in technology but follow a different path that provides them with more flexibility later in their careers.

Another is that taking time away from the workforce, such as for maternity leave, puts workers on a steeper learning curve when they return and delays their advance up the career ladder. Consequently, women have lagged behind men in achieving high-level positions in IT.

In addition to a lack of tenure, many women have hit a glass ceiling when striving for directorships or CIO roles, according to Windy Warner, an executive coach specializing in working with IT executives and professionals.

Women create part of the problem themselves because we tend not to be as confident in our abilities as men are, Warner says. We dont let management know what we have contributed, we dont ask for promotions and raises as easily as men do, and we dont assert ourselves into leadership positions on teams as much as we could. As a result, we are overlooked when it comes to promotions.

The end result: a very low female presence among C-level executives, which in turn means fewer mentors and role models for younger women seeking tech positions.

Keeping your employees happy

Fortunately, IT employers can make human resources policy changes that address womens unique needs in the workplace, increase hiring and retention rates, and enhance the working environment while also improving company performance.

As in many industries, a work/family balance is the No. 1 desire of women working in IT. They want to devote sufficient time to career and family -- without shortchanging either of them.

Managers who build flexibility into schedules can ensure that they retain experienced, knowledgeable workers -- regardless of their sex. There are several ways to do this:

  • Provide training. Technology changes fast, and for those workers who have temporarily left the workforce, a knowledge gap can quickly develop. The key to addressing this problem is for employers to offer appropriate training for all employees who have temporarily left the field and are interested in returning to work.
  • Create flexible work hours. This can help employees meet conflicting demands without decreasing the number of hours they work.
  • Offer a compressed workweek. This involves working full-time hours in four days and leaving a longer weekend with more personal time. For working mothers who are worried about day-care costs, this means one less day that they have to pay someone to watch their children.
  • Implement job sharing. Here, two people split one job. Each employee receives adequate support, and the responsibilities are balanced. This way, if a family emergency comes up that requires one employee to leave work, there is someone else who can provide backup.
  • Allow telecommuting. This provides a more comfortable and convenient work environment and can be particularly helpful for new mothers or those with young children at home.
  • Provide adequate leave options. This encompasses holiday leave, parental leave, maternity leave and elder care duties. If your organization cant offer extensive leave time, it can assist working parents by providing information on local day-care centers and other care providers, and it can even supply loan information to help ease financial stress.
  • Give employees comp days. Certain projects can take up a significant amount of regular work hours or require substantial overtime. Awarding comp days after these busy cycles offers a much-needed break and more opportunities to spend time with family, and it shows workers that their contributions are appreciated.

These options can give women greater control over their days and let them structure their workflows according to the demands on their time. The result: employees who waste little time, value their employers and stay with their organizations.

Winning big

Retaining and fostering women has long-term positive effects for both employers and employees. Chief among them are the benefits derived from diverse teams.

Diversity is essential to IT success. The ability to draw from an array of perspectives is critical for idea generation and problem solving. Women are a crucial part of this effort, bringing with them a variety of backgrounds, expertise and approaches to work that can complement and deepen IT teams.

A 2006 Gartner Inc. study about the IT gender gap pointed to three traits in particular that can affect team performance.

The first is listening skills. According to the Gartner study, women are better at listening using both the right (intuitive) and left (analytical) sides of their brains, whereas men tend to be left-brained. This lends itself to roles such as business analyst or team leader.

Women are also more proficient in a range of language skills, including verbal fluency. This can be applied to detailed analysis of human discourse, writing and overall communication techniques.

Finally, women tend to score higher on social skills. This includes social orientation, empathy and understanding others views. The natural job-function fit: team-building and negotiation.

Ultimately, strong, diverse teams, bolstered by the inclusion of women, should translate into several tangible business benefits for IT employers. Fulfilled employees perform better than disgruntled ones, and productivity increases in turn.

Such organizations also experience improved recruitment and retention -- a must-have in the quest to retain female employees.

Indeed, the key to capturing womens essential talent lies in providing in-depth job functions, flexible policies, collaborative environments, supportive cultures, and ample opportunities for growth and advancement.

Jim Lanzalotto is vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh, a leading provider of high-impact talent and outsourcing services and a unit of The Day & Zimmermann Group Inc. For more information, please visit www.yoh.com or contact Lanzalotto directly at Jim.Lanzalotto@yoh.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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