Making IT Work

Four women tell how they've survived and flourished in the IT culture.

In her early years as an IT professional, Monique McKeon found that work/life balance was a struggle. Two of her early employers a large software firm and a Big 6 consultancy were somewhat unclear on the concept. At the consultancy, her travel schedule kept her out of town more than she was comfortable with. Then, when her first child was born, the bottom fell out. I heard through the grapevine that one of the partners said I wasnt as committed as before I had children, she says. That was the day I started looking for a job.

McKeon eventually found a welcoming culture at The Chubb Corp., where she is now an application manager, but other women in IT simply leave the industry. And fewer women are embarking on IT careers in the first place. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in the IT profession today has dropped to 26.1% from 28.9% in 2001. And the future looks even worse: According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), just 21% of computer science degrees go to women today, compared with 37% in 1985.

So, whats gone wrong here? Some blame lingering stereotypes of geeky programmers working in isolation; others point at societal messages that discourage women from pursuing math-and science-oriented careers. Once on the job, the peer pressure to put in punishing hours the last jacket on the chair wins mentality that pervades some IT shops can also be a turn-off, especially for women, says Jenny Slade, communications director at the NCWIT.

And problems for women in IT sometimes extend beyond work/life balance, says Eileen Trauth, professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University. Ive heard women talk about pinups, not being invited to lunch and the kinds of jokes people tell, she says, emphasizing that these are anecdotes from her research, not problems that all women have encountered.

Computerworld talked with four successful women about their own experiences in the IT profession: what theyve found difficult, what theyve found fulfilling and what they think it takes to attract more women into the field.

Monique McKeon.  Application Manager, The Chubb Corp.

Monique McKeon

Application manager, The Chubb Corp.

Monique McKeons early career experience at the Big 6 consulting firm was off-putting, and her life at the software company wasnt much better. When I was interviewing, I asked, How do I know Im going to be measured and rewarded based on what I deliver, not the hours I clock? she says. And I was baffled that they almost didnt understand what I was asking. That should have clued me in that I wasnt going to get the balance I was looking for.

Responsibility for her children required a type of flexibility that was provided only grudgingly at best, so McKeon eventually left the software company.

At Chubb, however, the companys encouragement of work/life balance is evident in the laptop it provided so she can run out the door early if necessary and pick up work again after dinner.

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