diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

Summary: This series of entries, called diversITy, will cover a number of topics all concerning the diversity of people within the IT industry. Whether we discuss women in industry, sexual orientation in the workplace, religion or ethnic background; these are all topics which will have an effect on students, if not already.

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TOPICS: IT Employment, CXO
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diversity-sm.pngThis series of entries, called diversITy, will cover a number of topics all concerning the diversity of people within the IT industry. Whether we discuss women in industry, sexual orientation in the workplace, religion or ethnic background; these are all topics which will have an effect on students, if not already.

For years now, the IT industry has been dominated by men – women deterred by the geeky image of an anti-social, geeky teenager who hasn’t seen daylight in weeks, working in the basement of his mum’s house, programming away to some complicated code. On the flip side, you have the perspective of a woman in the IT industry somewhere, where they’re sat behind a desk filing away, writing reports and performing general secretarial duties, whilst flirting with the other employees as she stirs their coffee, whilst imitating something sexually deviant with her tongue.

Both are wrong, because both are misconceptions and mistaken stereotypes. Although there may be elements of both some might actually like, it does pose the million dollar question. Why aren’t there enough women in the IT workplace?

Over the last few days, I’ve been in touch with some widely influential people involved in leading organisations, from Google to Microsoft (for once they agree on something), the National Center for Women in Information Technology, and getting the perspective to understand this problem from other prominent figures in the IT and technology industry.

womens-symbol.pngOver the years, Microsoft has done their bit in trying to inspire the younger female generation to consider the perks of working in the IT industry. Every year, they carefully piece a 3-5 day curriculum aimed at high school aged girls, to show them some of the finer points of working with IT and technology, and hopefully they walk away with a positive attitude towards the industry, if not a career path lined up. Providing a free course, free lunches, and a wealth of experience and understanding, there's little cost to the parents, as their child gets to grips with the finer points of technology.

I spoke to an old colleague, Philippa Snare at Microsoft UK, a prominent leader and advocate of women working in technology. She told me about how she had started off in the first place:

“I have been in the 'IT industry' for over 15 years and yet when I left university I really didn’t know that’s what I would be saying. All I knew was that using computers and some of the software and services I could get on one gave me the ability to find information more easily, get stuff from my friends that they couldn’t and connect with people in a less threatening and more equitable way.”

She decided after finishing university that she wanted to “show the world that you didn’t have to be in the old boys club to become influential”, not only that, “[women] could really help people grow their business ideas, meet new people and do things they may have had self doubt about with no other form of support.”

I asked how women see the workplace, and how they perceive IT nowadays:

"Women often get attracted to roles in industries that are about the greater good, they do roles that play to traditional female strengths like communications, collaboration and getting the best out of people. It used to be the case that IT by the very name is harder to have an emotional connection with, it seems removed in some way. But I think that is changing; you ask a teenager now to give up their mobile phone and you will see how emotional technology has become."

By inspiring the younger generation of females at high-school age, Microsoft have been showing the lighter side of IT and how women can make a difference to a very male-dominated workplace.

"Microsoft is dedicated to bringing back that emotional connection, to help students and graduates use their expertise and knowledge to make a difference in the world. The student scheme we have been running is about empowering students to join the IT industry, learn and develop their strengths quickly and encourage their passions and then use these to challenge they way corporations do things - so we keep ensuring that new talent and industry corporations together are growing an industry stacked with talented individuals who are bursting with ideas."

gracehopper1.pngThe Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference is held every year in celebration of women working in computing, named after Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the best mathematicians and computer scientists of her day. By celebrating women in IT, this inspires and influences women into working in such a high-profile industry. There are a large number of women in technology already, and this should be celebrated - as the conference is the largest technical conference for women in computing, and this results in idea sharing, contributions, and showing the world what research has been done.

Without conferences and meets such as these, we may never have heard of Susan Kare, who created much of the user interface of the original Apple Macintosh; Sally Floyd who worked on the TCP(/IP) protocol. How about Mary Lou Jepsen, the founder and the chief technology officer for the OLPC project? These women have helped shape the world today, and in some cases the future as well.

I spoke to Laura Scott at Google, who told me how they were supporting women every way they can.

"Google is very committed to encouraging more women in engineering, all over the world - indeed many of our site directors in Europe are women - in the London mobile engineering office, Haifa in Israel and in Russia. It's core to our commitment to a diverse workforce."

Not only that, she provided me with some content over email about some of the initiatives and projects Google has been involved in over the last few years:

google-womensday.png"As part of Google's ongoing commitment to women in IT, we offer several scholarships for women in computing and technology. These include the Google Anita Borg Scholarship, which was established to honour the legacy of Anita Borg and her efforts to encourage women to pursue careers in computer science and technology and to support women in becoming active role models and leaders."

"Amongst other activities, we have participated in Equalitec studies and partnered with BCS Women, Women In Technology, Roehampton University, Women in Mobile Data Association and Women@CL in supporting events and conferences. We were recently involved in the London and Scottish Hoppers, which are modelled after the US-based Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. We have contributed to St James's House "Diverse Britain 2007" publication, which tells the story of diversity in the UK. We host a number of Women in Engineering Tech Talks for external audiences and recently hosted a Girl Geeks event in our London office, aimed at providing a welcoming atmosphere and a platform for learning in an informal environment."

I asked about rewarding female university students, and extending work experience programmes:

"We have also introduced the "Google Prize", a financial award specifically for outstanding female computer science students. The prize is intended to encourage women to enter and remain in the field of computer science."

"During Girls@Google Days, the girls meet and spend time with Google engineers & product managers and participate in workshops that get them excited about technology and help to dispel myths about careers in computer science. As well as providing role models for the next generation, these pre-university activities are a great way for Google engineers to get involved in their local communities."

ncwit1.pngHopefully over the next few days, I'll be able to update this post after speaking to Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). They work with over 100 different organisations worldwide in increasing the number of women working in IT and technology, by expanding opportunities to cover a more creative aspect perspective to students.

When researching for this article, I came up with many pages, articles, interviews and talks. I spoke to the other ZDNet bloggers, and my colleague, Jennifer Leggio, who also writes a personal blog. As well as being an active member of NCWIT, she wrote an article about how the industry needs to change, and how women need to empower themselves to make things happen and speak up, and get the companies to lose the stereotypes.

In summary, there are a good number of women working in IT, technology, and the computing industry, but it's not nearly enough as most other industries. Whilst the opportunities are there, it takes the corporations, organisations and businesses to highlight some of the better and indeed more accurate perspectives of the industry, to the younger female generation. With enough luck, work, hope and effort, this very male-oriented business will open itself more to women over the coming months and years, as more and more girls and women realise their potential in making this world a far happier, better organised, and more diverse.

warning.png Comments:  These posts may seem controversial to some, so in light of this I will not be accepting any derogatory, sexist, homophobic, racially motivated, extremist, verbally violent, threatening, or anything like that. I'm all for openness, honesty and transparency, but I have zero tolerance over any of the above. If such comments are found, they'll be deleted straight away without warning or notification.

Topics: IT Employment, CXO

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36 comments
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  • Here's one for ya....

    We have a very competent and very accomplished female CIO at FM Global, the company where I'm just finishing up a co-op assignment. She was recently profiled in Information Week. Here's the link:

    http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2008/05/business_tech_i.html?cid=RSSfeed_IWK_ALL
    MGP2
    • Company officers are few and far between

      CIO, CTO - they paid their dues long ago but by and large they are not involved with technical minutiae day to day. Budgetary meetings and vendor relations may be concerned with the IT department but given the topic being blogged about, I would infer it as "the massses" in the IT trenches vs. the person 1 in 10,000 person who has company officership and is far, far removed from the day to day grind of executing technical tasks.

      -M
      betelgeuse68
  • RE: diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

    the lack of women in IT is less about the attitude of women
    than the attitude of men. perfect sat scores, check. 15
    years experience, check. IQ in the 160s, check. oh, but i'm
    female, therefore by default i have to prove i'm not retarded
    to 50% of the men in the room. it's exhausting. so
    exhausting that many people are driven to leave the field
    altogether.
    hypoxia3
  • Who cares

    Did you know which two areas in the country have an absurdly high number of autistic children? Silicon Valley and the Seattle area (thanks to Microsoft). Read all about it:

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aspergers_pr.html

    The theory? All those "left brained" gals mating with left brain guys.

    What does this have to do with the topic at hand? A lot actually.

    Women handle strokes far better than men when the stroke is in the left hemisphere since men have a significantly higher bias (use) of the left side of the brain.

    Testosterone has been shown (this is science I've seen on the Discovery channel, neural scans done to a woman who was having a sex change) to significantly increase neural activity in the left hemisphere of the brain. Guess which side IT people tend to use?

    So, when articles like this one speak about the lack of women in IT it seems very irrelevant.

    The reality is, the very nature of women significantly predisposes them *NOT* to be interested in IT - it's the female creature. I don't see value in fighting nature. It is what it is.

    And let's all be clear here. When you quote Philippa Snare, "[women] could really help people grow their business ideas, meet new people and do things they may have had self doubt about with no other form of support."

    That's not IT in the classic sense of the world. That's business development and involves communication in many forms and women are known for their strengths in that area.

    -M
    betelgeuse68
    • RE: Who cares

      It's funny actually... because of the nature of my condition, Tourette's syndrome, I spent a lot of time with neuropsychiatrists, neurologists etc. We did an awful lot of research studying many things to do with the brain, and hopefully come up with some answers.

      At the time, I was doing some work with Microsoft, and spoke to the boffins about this. We thought we'd have a mini study.

      Lo and behold, a couple of weeks later, we came to the conclusion that there's a 93% chance that Bill Gates has some form of mild psychological issue, most likely due to him being on the autistic spectrum.

      Four of the countries best neurologists and myself, decided that Bill Gates has Asperger's syndrome. Look at him now... :-)
      zwhittaker
      • I also have Tourettes

        I am a woman with Tourettes and I'm an IT professional. Hmmmmm, interesting.
        deea@...
  • Gender focus area

    Except for the fact there are ~2.5 women to 1 man in certain
    large metro-areas, keep in mind that specific 'disorders' get
    out-of-hand quickly if accredited experts don't intervene.
    For example, the media focuses way too much on ADHD and
    Asperger's and Autism. Problem is, you never hear much on
    Audio Processing or Sensory Integration conditions, which
    are neglected in my opinion on the Internet to a large degree.
    Don't take my word for it, ask any concerned mother about it
    for the direction.
    dascha1
  • RE: diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

    Its a sad day when we have to define male and female as differences in the IT world. As a 21 year veteran of the IT and Telecom worlds, I certainly don't fit the standard geek mold. As those who saw me speak at VoiceCon '08 in Orlando this year, hopefully I was perceived as an intelligent, witty, cutting-edge IT person who despite being attractive has a brain in my head and can converse with both my male and female peers in an educated fashion on many topics.

    My goal is to mentor those who work with me, whether male or female, into a career which uses their skills and interests in a manner which best fits both the employee and the company. Its time to stop thinking about the glass ceiling as well. Either its not there or I have stupidly gone through/around it as I have been blessed to have excellent mentors of my own throughout my career.
    fonegirl
  • RE: diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

    Well, I have a Wife who is also our company's CTO (managing 8 technical staff). She is intelligent, witty, innovative and a real looker (oh BTW she is the mother to our two kids aged 2 and 4) She has her work cut out anld loves every minute of it.
    More about her here http://www.pamaya.com/team.php
    paul@...
  • RE: lack of women in IT - been to TechEd lately?

    I just got back from TechEd, and the rarity of women (except in vendor's booths) is astonishing. The "Women in Technology" luncheon was standing room only, unfortunately not because so many women were there, but because the room was rather small. There must have been 20 men for each woman amongst the attendees, and only one female presenter out of the 20 or so sessions that I considered going to.

    Contrast that with the field of biochemistry, which is rapidly reaching equal numbers of men and women, and for which colleges now often have more female than male graduates.

    What's up? Biochemistry is no easier to learn than IT, but women are drawn to it in far greater numbers. I don't have an answer, but we need more questions.
    gbcmars@...
  • RE: diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

    Some people leave so entrenched in niche areas that cannot see the world around.

    IT is not only High Tech or pulling cables.

    I work at a large financial institution and on my IT department we have pretty much a 50/50 ratio in all ranges of ages from the super mainframe consultant which happens to be a bright professional woman in her late 50's and to several recent grads working as developers, analysts, testers, etc.

    Our IT management rooster is as well evenly split.

    So, yes, maybe in jobs that demand 100% focus in a single task there is a natural tendency to have more men but thankfully IS/IT is much more than that.

    Having said that, it is also evident (although not obvious) as someone above said, that in very techincal (as in "requiring 100% attention to a single topic") females do not get the same respect and seem to require to prove them selves harder than men do.
    rarsa
  • RE: diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

    I worked in IT all through high school (having my own computer repair and tutor business), college, and grad school. Even though IT was not my major, it is still the area I work in. I am now a self-employed database programmer, it's all about the relationships! ;). However, I have scaled back my involvement since I am married and would like to have children before I am too old. The high-stress of IT (before I was working for myself) did a number on my body and prevented me from being able to get pregnant. Perhaps this issue affects others and has contributed to the low numbers of women in IT?
    michelerioux@...
    • Could be

      I always assumed that it was the 'dedication beyond the limits of sense' (OK, obsession) that used to be the minimal entry requirement to the IT field that limited the number of women on that career path. Men are for more likely to be satisfied with not really having a 'life' (in my experience), thus causing the imbalance.

      I can see, though, that stress itself may also have a bearing on this, and might even STILL be contributing to the current state of affairs. Note, however, that as IT has advanced ('lowering the bar' to entry, if you will) that women in increasing numbers are contributing their brain power and insights into the industry today. Now that working IT does not include banging ML code at 3:00am for weeks at a time.... brains count more than obsession!
      Freebird54
  • RE: diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

    Why are there not more men in nursing, or teaching? The assumption that in a perfectly fair, unbiased job market, we would have exactly proportional representation of men and women in every job category is probably false. Sexism may still exist in some hiring halls, but sex differences are real and physical and have been found to affect every cell in the body, including the brain. So in a truly free market, people will sort themselves out according to their abilities and interests and the needs of different employers; and if the demographics are skewed this way or that, so what? If company Y hires all males from one ethnic tribe, or company X hires all female geniuses, they will either succeed or fail in the marketplace, and how they got to that point won't matter to the customers. Should we care that more and more males are avoiding college altogether? Is there some pervasive anti-male hostility on campuses now that we should be concerned about?
    MadSciGuy
  • Not here

    I work in the IT department of an organization with around 500 users. In our department of six, I'm the only male. My supervisor is a female, and HER supervisor is a female.

    We had several other male employees in the past, all of whom are now gone. I've got to say, the women have just worked out better than them. They've been harder works, and they've been better at communicating with our users.
    ParrotHeadFL
    • Everyone!

      @ fonegirl, paul's wife - we need more women like you/her :-)

      For the rest of you, many thanks for your comments. All very much appreciated - hopefully someone out there will see these and ask the questions themselves in their own organisations and corporations.
      zwhittaker
  • RE: diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

    Hey Zack,
    I had to copy down your Warning at the end of your article. It's the perfect example of a new generation of openness which is hardly openness at all. It's hilarious how you can say you're all for openness except for the following unacceptable categories. Reminds me of how Communist China and other dictatorial regimes have dealt with openness in the last 100 years

    I thank you for providing me with this example and can't wait for the craziness of the next one.

    Thanks!
    Mark
    mrissman1@...
    • RE: Mark

      It was more in response to the amount of crap being spouted off by nutters on Garett's blog:

      http://blogs.zdnet.com/Google/?p=1071#comments
      zwhittaker
  • It's ONLY natural!

    For centuries, women showed aren't really good on things like Mathematic and Logic, and those two are a must on IT area. So is just natural. It will be ALWAYS like that, this is not new at all!
    Gradius2
    • Really?

      And apparently you are an example of not being good at grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Please let me go call my 75 year old mother, the accountant, and let her know she is not good at math! LOL.
      fonegirl