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.

Why the Bonus Gap?

These days, a company's tough financial situation might derail most rational requests for a bonus, whether they come from a male or a female worker.

But women traditionally don't earn higher bonuses because they often don't ask, says Laura Sherbin, director of research at the Center for Work-Life Policy. "When your bonus pool is fixed, and men say 'I want this or I'm going to quit,' and women don't say anything -- men get the bonuses they want and women get what's left over," says Sherbin. "When they don't ask, their manager perceives that they don't care, or that they're in a second-earner situation where the money is not as important to them."

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."

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.

Those frequent calculations have led to an ongoing exodus of women from IT, especially in middle management, according to the 2009 NCWIT study "Women in IT: The Facts." Some 74% of women in technology report "loving their work," yet those women leave their careers at a staggering rate. About 56% of technical women leave at the "midlevel" point, more than double the quit rate of men.

Researchers blame the midcareer departures most often on isolation, a dearth of mentors, and a lack of access to the types of networks that men have, Ashcraft says. Another factor is "competing responsibilities and work-life balance issues," she adds. "A lot of people think [of choosing] a tech career because it involves technology that can be done more flexibly from home. It can, but you have the flexibility to work all the time!"

But for women who choose to stay in IT, the glass ceiling appears to be coming down. "In the last few years we've seen an increase of female CIOs in major companies," as well as an increase in women in the IT workforce, says Carolyn Leighton, founder and CEO of Women in Technology International, a professional association.

Indeed, the percentage of women CIOs or executive vice presidents of technology at 1,000 leading companies rose to 16.4% in 2009, up from 12% in 2007, according to recruiting firm Sheila Greco Associates LLC.

Deborah Lindell, CIO at the Delaware Department of Corrections, credits her success to the fact that she has worked with a lot of people, nearly all of them men, who gave her opportunities.

"They found my brand of salesmanship and persuasiveness intriguing, and they liked how I approached a business problem from a technical perspective," says Lindell, 50, who is married with one child. She also made seven or eight lateral moves in 14 years at her previous employer. That mobility helped her stay engaged at a point in her career when she might otherwise have left IT. "I saw something that needed to be done and asked for the challenge. I did that a number of times, and when you are successful, people believe in you," she explains.

The Next Generation

Sparking Girls' Interest in IT Careers

Female college students have slowly moved away from earning science, engineering and technology degrees over the past two decades. Only 18% of computer and information science degrees awarded in 2008 went to women, down from 37% in 1985, according to a study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

"A lot of times, girls are steered away from those careers either overtly or implicitly -- through subtle messages that it's not really what girls do," says Catherine Ashcraft, co-author of the NCWIT study. "Or they hear the stereotypes about it being a boring job with no interaction with others, and you sit at a computer all day." The dot-com bust in the late '90s also gave college students the idea that IT careers were doomed and that computing jobs were being shipped overseas, she adds.

"I believe we have to start changing the way math and science are taught," says Carolyn Leighton, founder and CEO of Women In Technology International. "They are taught for the male brain. We have different ways of thinking and approaching issues. The only reason I hated math is that I like to think and create, and my math teachers wanted me to memorize all the time."

Others believe that technology careers need to be marketed differently to women -- perhaps by presenting IT as a business-oriented profession that involves technical skills, or as a discipline that offers an opportunity to lead, create or help save the environment.

Valspar Corp. CIO Kate Bass believes that as more companies integrate technology into every facet of their operations, demand for women with IT skills will grow.

"As these organizations move along the spectrum of business partnership and away from programming and technical operations, women will be much more attracted to the discipline, as women tend to communicate and bond more effectively," Bass says.

Women in the Middle

Some women in midlevel IT management say the lifestyle suits them just fine.

Lorraine Spencer doesn't plan on leaving her middle-management IT position at Johns Hopkins University anytime soon -- even though there's a salary freeze and staffers aren't getting bonuses. At the Office of Continuing Medical Education, Spencer has found a perfect niche for her lifestyle and some benefits beyond bonuses. She enjoys a 37.5-hour workweek and has opportunities to move into different IT positions within the university.

"Universities are fabulous places to work for women," Spencer says. "I intentionally came here because it's a better work-life balance. There seem to be more opportunities for advancement for women. Our CIO is a woman."

What's more, the university will pay half of her son's tuition at any U.S. college or university -- a perk offered to anyone who has worked there more than two years.

Filling the Pool

Ashcraft worries about the future of innovation if the pool of women in technology should continue to decline. "It isn't just about equity and fairness, though that's important, too," she says. "But it's also about the harm it does to innovation to have one relatively similar group of people designing the new technologies that are being consumed by a diverse range of people. To the extent that the talent pool becomes more similar, that creative innovation is at risk."

Companies are making strides toward closing the gap on women's pay and opportunities every day. Google, for example, has joined the CWLP to develop policies for employees with children. "A lot more companies are making this commitment and designing programs to help women," Sherbin says. "We hope it's a very positive outlook."

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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