Women and the future of IT

The industry’s attitude toward women has to change, just as much as women’s attitude toward the industry and STEM education has to be revised. The key will be starting when they’re young.

rosie the riveter
J. Howard Miller, Public Domain (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The future of IT very much depends on our industry collectively being able to rebrand our discipline as a preferred profession for women to pursue. The attraction and retention of female IT executives is not just a “feminist” or “women’s studies” issue. It’s an IT industry issue — an issue all of us have to understand and take action on.

Until recently I had labored under the very erroneous assumption that in IT, and in the technology industry in general, gender bias didn’t exist. I figured that, yes, there were probably isolated instances of discrimination. And yes, there were probably some small-minded, misogynistic, “bad apple” IT managers out there. But for the most part I figured IT was progressive. Becky Blalock, the recently retired CIO at the Southern Company and author of Dare: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage & Career, provided data, frameworks and stories that started me on the path to understanding the real situation regarding women in IT. Becky explained to me that “men don’t know what they don’t know.” She is now tirelessly campaigning to portray our industry as it really is vis-à-vis careers for women and remove the systemic barriers that keep women from entering and remaining in our field.

Situationally naive

As an empirical futurist, I was embarrassed at how out of touch I was with what was really going on regarding women in the IT workplace. Gender bias was never on my radar screen. Having never been discriminated against personally, I was insensitive to the experience of those who had. 

My great-grandmother was one of the first women in the state of Pennsylvania to have a driver’s license. My mother-in-law was one of the first women to become an MD in the state of Louisiana. My mother was prominent in human intelligence gathering for the National Security Agency after World War II. It never occurred to me that women could be considered less equal or less qualified for any endeavor. In my family, the males always aspired to be as smart as the females. 

Additionally, in thirty-plus years of researching leadership excellence, the most powerful case studies almost invariably featured a woman CIO. To listen and learn from Dawn Lepore, formerly CIO at Charles Schwab; Cheryl Smith, formerly CIO at both West Jet and McKesson; Jody Davids of Agrium and formerly CIO at Cardinal Health, Nike and Apple; Jennifer Sepull of Kimberly-Clark; Andi Karaboutis of Dell; Karen Green of Brooks Rehabilitation; Joanne Kossuth of the Olin College of Engineering; or Rebecca Jacoby of Cisco was to experience the very best in leadership. Show me a conference that doesn’t have at least one woman featured as keynoter and I will show you a conference that celebrates mediocrity.  

Historical perspective

The term “computer” in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a job description like “mechanic” or “secretary.” It referenced anyone who used a mechanical device to do arithmetic calculations. In the immediate postwar world, women dominated the “computer” job category. Most “computers” were women. Things have changed. Women have left the field. 

Becky Blalock has done her historical homework. She notes that women were not included in the original affirmative action legislation. Indeed, prior to 1964 it was perfectly legal and not that uncommon for an employer to say, “I am not going to hire you because you are a woman.” 

We have a pipeline problem (statistics from Girls Who Code)

“From the middle school computer lab to the upper echelons of Silicon Valley, the tech world has been a boys club for too long,” says Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. Yet U.S. universities are expected to produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29% of these jobs. Sixty percent of the people in college today are women. Yet women today represent just 12% of all computer science graduates. In 1984, they represented 37%. We appear to be losing ground. Our industry needs to do something to enlarge the IT talent pool. [For more on this topic, see "Black Girls Code Founder Looks to Expand Skills Outreach, Challenges CIOs to Help the Cause."]

Women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but hold just 25% of the jobs in technical or computing fields. In the U.K., women make up 47% of the working population, yet only 14% of them work in IT. In a room full of 25 engineers, only three will be women. “You would never say, ‘I can’t read.’ That’s just unacceptable in society,” Saujani says. “But it’s acceptable in society for a girl to say, ‘I hate math’ or ‘I’m not good at math.’” This has to change. 

In middle school, 74% of girls express interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), but when choosing a college major, just 0.3% of high school girls select computer science. A 2013 CompTIA Survey of 1,000 teens and young adults in North America discovered the following:

  • 95% of girls like technology.
  • 92% of girls have helped a family member or friend with a technical issue.
  • Only 9% said they want a career in IT.
  • 38% said probably not.
  • 53% said definitely not.

Middle school is thought by many researchers to be where the challenge of women in IT is most critical. This is where it begins, where girls are mistakenly made to believe that technology is something they consume, not create. Middle school girls need to be given the chance to sit with other girls and code. No judgment. No labels. No grades. Just turn on the computer and try this coding program.

According to College Board data compiled by Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, no female students took the Advanced Placement test in computer science in Mississippi, Montana, or Wyoming last year. For states in which some girls took the exam, the percentage of female test-takers ranged from 3.88% in Utah (4 out of 103) to 29% in Tennessee (73 out of 251). 

The No. 1 barrier is familiarity; 77% said they just hadn’t thought seriously about a career in IT and didn’t know anyone who worked in the IT industry. As Becky Blalock explained, “It is very hard to be something you have never seen.” This is why strong female IT role models are so critically important.  

We have a retention problem

The Athena Factor research project surfaced "antigens" in corporate cultures impacting the career trajectory of women with SET [science, engineering and technology] credentials. Women in technology can be marginalized by hostile macho cultures. Being the sole woman on a team or at a site can create isolation. Female attrition rates tend to spike 10 years into a career. Women experience a perfect storm in their mid to late thirties: They hit serious career hurdles precisely when family pressures intensify. Companies that step in with targeted support before this "fight or flight moment" may be able to lower the female attrition rate significantly.

In 2015, what will you do to make IT more female-friendly?

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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