By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
Last fall, Technisource released its Women & Men in Information Technology Survey, which revealed the many discrepancies in how men and women in the IT industry view the challenges being faced by women.
One of the most interesting findings revealed that nearly half of the men surveyed strongly believed that female IT workers were equally compensated for their work as their male counterparts, while only 22 percent of women surveyed felt the same.
A Lack of Female Talent
The information technology industry has long been considered a male-dominated field, so much in fact that even women currently in the industry view it as “mainly a male career path,” as reported by 42 percent of the women surveyed in Technisource’s findings. Currently, women hold more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S., but only 25 percent of women hold computing-related occupations.
Like many other industries, IT does have a pay gap, though it’s actually smaller than those in other industries. According to Catherine Ashcraft, the National Center for Women & Information Technology IT’s senior research scientist, a recent study revealed that the gap almost completely disappears when controlling for age, job title, and experience.
The big obstacle in IT is simply getting females interested in the field. According to the NCWIT, girls represented just 18 percent of Advanced Placement computer science (CS) exam-takers in 2009, which is the lowest female representation of any AP exam. Also in 2009, women earned only 18 percent of all CS degrees, down 19 percent from 1985.
Very few organizations are working as hard as NCWIT to get more women in the industry. Through their support of their alliance members – whose programs include outreach, retention, curriculum reform, research, leadership, and image programs – NCWIT’s work connects the entire pipeline, from K-12 and higher education to industry and academic careers. NCWIT’s national infrastructure also conducts workshops, research, releases publications, and performs evaluations as a way of providing the tools and support necessary to increase girls’ and women’s participation in the industry.
What’s so frustrating about the lack of women in the IT industry is that the industry has so much to offer women. According to Ashcraft, there are countless reasons why young women should consider a technical career.
“Evidence suggests that when promoted and advanced, women tend to fare better in terms of pay than other industries. The bad news; however, is that the evidence also suggests that unconscious biases and other factors are preventing them from being promoted at the rates they should be. What must always be highlighted is that these are well-paying jobs, some of the best paying jobs you can get with a four-year degree,” Ashcraft said.
“Technology jobs are among the fastest growing professions, so it’s more likely that you will have a variety of options when it comes to employment. Also, flexibility is often a problem for women, but many of these jobs are more flexible than other kinds of jobs in the workforce. It’s also important to note that computing isn’t about sitting alone at a computer all day, which is a common misconception. There are many opportunities in technology to work with others and to invent technology that can contribute to the good of society.”
Missing Mentors and Mounting Responsibilities
Some of Technisource’s findings reveal a disconnect between what women in IT want/need and what the industry has actually provided them. For example, it was found that equal percentages of men and women (43 percent) in IT cite “relationship building and professional network” as one of the most crucial aspects to their success over the next five years, though a whopping 67 percent of women surveyed haven’t had a mentor. Women surveyed also cited being challenged as the most important factor to their “IT career satisfaction,” though only 14 percent reported being “very satisfied” with their career.
“Family responsibilities still typically fall on women, so if accessing mentors and developing networks must be done on their own time and more formal opportunities aren’t built into the company structure, it makes the whole process very difficult,” Ashcraft said. “Research also suggests that women aren’t being challenged enough or given opportunities to utilize their creativity and potential and that women are pushed into execution roles rather than having access to more creative/innovative roles.”
As author of several reports on women in the IT workforce, Ashcraft’s own study Who Invents IT? An Analysis of Women’s Participation in IT Patenting found that women only account for about 4.7 percent of all U.S. invented IT patents. It was also discovered that mixed-sex teams produced patents that were more highly cited. “So it’s important to recognize that when women face difficulties in accessing creative roles, it’s not just discouraging for the women; it’s also bad for the company, for innovation, and for the bottom line,” Ashcraft said.
IT’s Glass Ceiling (and Dirty Little Secret)
Only 20 percent of women surveyed by Technisource believed there is no glass ceiling in the IT industry, but NCWIT research suggests that mid-level women who’ve been in the industry between 10 and 20 years are the most likely to leave. Many of the reasons have already been discussed: a lack of mentors and professional networks, a lack of opportunities to be creative, a lack of support for competing responsibilities, etc. Another reason isn’t discussed as often, it’s sort of IT’s dirty little secret: hidden biases in advancement.
In NCWIT’s report Women in IT: The Facts, Ashcraft outlined many unconscious biases faced by women in the IT industry. For example, research showed that the same resume or profile is judged significantly higher when a man’s name is attached to it rather than a woman’s.
According to the senior research scientist, the first step to tackling this problem is making it known. “Addressing these biases is really important because they result in all kinds of subtle, everyday problems that add up over time and cause people to leave.”