Sandberg's book prompts discussion on dearth of women in IT

Facebook's COO helps draw attention to the continuing decline in the number of female tech workers in the U.S.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's belief that the women's revolution has "stalled" and that "men still run the world" may have merit, at least in IT.

Women today are clearly rejecting IT as a career.

In the early 1980s, women accounted for just over 37% of all U.S. college students earning bachelor's degrees in computer science. By 2010, that percentage had fallen to a little more than 17%, according to latest available data from the National Science Foundation.

Sandberg is calling on women to be more assertive, or to "lean in," as she writes in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book comes out at a time when women are significantly under-represented in U.S. data centers.

Last year, women held only 26% of the jobs in computer-related occupations, up from 25% from 2011. That slight uptick notwithstanding, the overall number of female IT professionals has declined steadily since 2000, when women's share of the computer-related jobs pool hit a peak of nearly 30%, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

Tammi Pirri, vice president of human resources at Black Duck Software, an open-source software services and development firm, has witnessed the downward trend first hand. In her eight years at Black Duck, she said, "we've only had one female engineering intern [but] we've had 10 male engineering interns."

Sandberg's book has been criticized for its focus on "changing the women rather than changing the system," said Jenny Slade, communications director at NCWIT. "But frankly, if she'd written a polemic on institutional bias in the workplace, she'd have been criticized for painting women as victims."

Kim Stevenson, vice president and CIO at Intel, one of 24 female CIOs in Fortune 100 companies, said her company's success in increasing the number of female employees in mid- to senior-level technical jobs since 2004 isn't a fluke. Stevenson noted that Intel offers mentoring programs and opportunities for network-building for women -- activities that Sandberg champions. The Women at Intel Network has 22 chapters.

Stevenson doesn't share Sandberg's view that progress for women has stalled, though she agrees that more can be done.

Kathy Harris, managing director of Harris Allied, an executive recruiting firm specializing in technology, suggested that women in IT create professional support networks.

"In pure technology departments, men still outnumber women by as much as nine to one. The sole woman in a predominantly male team often feels a sense of isolation," she said.

Karie Willyerd, vice president of learning and social adoption at SAP, said that unflattering stereotypes, like the depictions of engineers in the popular comic strip Dilbert, may have discouraged young girls from thinking about IT careers. But recent moves by building block maker Lego and other companies to create products aimed at exposing young girls to engineering could begin to change the cultural message, she added.

Paula Hunter, executive director of the nonprofit Outercurve Foundation, which offers a forum for open-source and commercial software developers to come together, also cited some advantages that can make tech work attractive to more women. Software engineering, she said, "is not only well paid, but highly flexible," and therefore, she added, it's a good profession for "women who want to work throughout their children's formative years."

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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