Women still don't get IT, impeded by social norms

Women still don't get IT, impeded by social norms

Summary: Despite efforts to ensure female executives aren't marginalized in the ICT industry, few today are appointed to the CXO team or company board. The solution remains elusive, especially since the problem has social and cultural implications, but ICT itself might just be the equalizer eventually.


Fresh out of university and my first year in the IT media industry, I had a personal interest in issues pertaining to women in the technology realm since it was something I could relate to. 

I interviewed female IT executives and inevitably would discuss challenges they faced working in a male-dominated industry, whether there was indeed a glass ceiling, and how they coped with discrimination in the workplace. I remember one executive saying then that, years down the road, we wouldn't be talking about how rare it was to see women fronting IT organizations and gender differences would no longer be a topic that needed addressing.

Well, it's now 16 years later, and we're still talking about women in IT--or rather the lack of. Honestly, the stats are disappointing. 

According to nonprofit organization Catalyst, only 14.6 percent of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies last year were held by women. This number didn't budge much in the four years before 2013, where it hit 14.3 percent, 14.1 percent, 14.4 percent, and 13.5 percent in 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009, respectively. 

The numbers were slightly when it came to positions on the board of Fortune 500 companies, where women held 16.9 percent of seats in 2013. But, again, the number remained largely stagnant over the four years before that, hitting 16.6 percent, 16.1 percent, 15.7 percent, and 15.2 percent in 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009, respectively. 

The figures continue to dip in the startup world. A 2012 report by Dow Jones VentureSource indicated that a mere 1.3 percent of U.S. headquartered venture-backed startups had a female founder, while 6.5 percent had a female CEO. Another 20 percent had at least one female C-level executive.

When Twitter filed for IPO last year, it had no women in its board and only later added one female executive to its management team.  

Fellow social media website, Pinterest, may have a user base that comprises 70 percent female but it has no women on its board of directors which consists three men including CEO Ben Silbermann. He told Reuters should it look to expand its board, the company was "open" to welcoming a female counterpart, should a qualified candidate emerge. About 40 percent of Pinterest's top executives are female including the company's heads of design, finance, recruiting, and sales. 

When any article mentions female CXOs in the IT realm, the usual suspects always pop up...Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, HP CEO Meg Whitman, IBM CEO Ginny Rometty, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Is this because there are so few of them? Why are women still so underrepresented in IT? Do their skills not measure up?

I believe there are no straight answers, especially since the problem remains mired by age-old social and cultural norms.

Yahoo's Mayer made headlines when she built a nursery next to her office to accommodate her then-newborn son while she worked. This infuriated several employees, especially since she had just outlawed remote working across the organization. Would this have made headlines if it was a male CEO? Oh wait, he wouldn't need to build a nursery next to his office because his wife would be home with the child. 

That seems like a harsh punchline but it has been the reality for a long time.

Women are still deemed to be the default caregiver, though, to be fair, this is gradually starting to change with more men staying home to care for the children while the wives head out to work. But in several societies, especially in Asia, women are still regarded the inferior sex and such perceptions often permeate into the workplace. And women who do work are, more likely than men, made to feel guilty or more likely to feel guilty about leaving their kids behind in daycare centers and for not always being able to tuck them into bed.

I spoke to Internet Society CEO Kathy Brown, in Singapore last week for the ICANN meetings, about the longstanding challenge faced by women in IT and she expressed optimism the situation will continue to improve as technology becomes increasingly pervasive and more industry segments including healthcare and education adopt IT.

In a paper she wrote marking International Women's Day on March 8, Brown said: "The rewards of using the most profound technology of our time to make a global impact are innumerable. It's crucial that we help our daughters understand the benefits and value of participating in the ICT field." She added that the IT sector "bridges many industries and underlines almost every social, economic, and cultural facet of our lives". 

Brown is right. Technology is the one thing that can help equalize the gender playing field. 

It changes and evolves so quickly, women--or anyone for that matter--can jump in at any point, pick up the relevant skills, and immediately keep pace. And with younger generations, both female and male, growing up in a post-internet era and IT increasingly a way of life for them, writing lines of codes or studying computer science will no longer be gender-dependent. 

And perhaps then, we will no longer feel the need to talk about women in IT. 

Topics: Leadership, IT Employment, Social Enterprise


Eileen Yu began covering the IT industry when Asynchronous Transfer Mode was still hip and e-commerce was the new buzzword. Currently a freelance blogger and content specialist based in Singapore, she has over 16 years of industry experience with various publications including ZDNet, IDG, and Singapore Press Holdings.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • while i know a few in IT

    While I know a few women in IT, there just seems to be only a few that want to pursue that career path. My wife constantly sees jobs for IT while searching for a new job, but she does not want to pursue learning anything in that field. I have told her I could help her get started and show her things I have learned over time, but she would rather deal with other job types, even long distance driving jobs instead.
    • Sorry, buggin...

      Pure anecdote. And one data point does not an explanation make.
      • It is hard not to deal in anecdotes

        as sociological phenomena are incredibly complex and difficult to analyze. Even the author brings up the Marissa Mayer incident, because other than gender participation stats, we just don't have lots of hard data.

        My gut tells me that one of the big barriers is culture - the IT industry has a culture that's perceived (rightly or wrongly) for being super aggressive, ultra zealous (the workplace where you sleep next to the foosball table), and a tad geeky.

        For people not in that culture - and that's both men and women - the culture can seem profoundly unattractive as a lifestyle, even if the work itself is appealing.
      • The stats are easy

        We already see the stats, its the *why* that needs an answer.

        My youngest daughter is still thinking about what to do in college and working in IT I can get her a paid internship and can tell her exactly the money tracks. She wants nothing to do with it.
        Rann Xeroxx
  • Look at the number of males that play video games vs females who do.

    I think we need to get a grip and trying to balance things out where there is an imbalance due to the % of each genders interest in a certain field.

    How many females play video games and what is that as a percentage to the female population?

    The simple fact is that maybe its just a matter that not a large number of woman are interested in the IT field.

    It gets really tiresome when people choose to overlook the obvious possibility and simply move on.
  • Maybe they're just looking at other fields instead.

    A number of years ago I was helping out a jobs ministry. One woman programmer (from Iraq) complained, "I'm getting loads of crap from my boss about "not being a team player". They basically only want to hire young guys (CS or similar majors) from India and Pakistan. They come here from there and all they do is eat, sleep and program. I'm married. I have a family. I want a life. I don't want to work 70 hours a week at a lower-level job, and I shouldn't have to."

    Maybe one reason why there are so few senior level female IT folks is that on their way up they may decide to go into a different area where there is more opportunity. It's the same thing about complaints that there aren't enough Americans going into STEM fields. Gee! The smart folks are realizing that even with an MS they can expect to top out at around $85k, or they could get a Masters in BUSINESS and maybe hit $200k+. If they're going to have to get into management to break the tech salary ceiling, why not just get training for management to begin with? And if they do, they'll wind up in a NON tech position because they don't have the tech background.
  • Looking for a 50-50 (or whichever numbers in your mind)

    is not going to satisfy anyone but statistics. I have worked for many female bosses so far here in the US, and I don't have any preference one way or the other. And I don't see any trend that females are gaining or losing ground in the IT job market. The best approach to this is to let the market works itself out if you are looking for a truly free world. Besides, we also need to keep in mind there are various market segments in IT (development, requirement analysis, testing, engineering, networking, HW admin, management, etc.)
  • Not sure about it

    I don't know, but when companies outsource these IT jobs to India, the boys and girls alike in North America lose out.
    D.J. 43
  • Statistics and you

    Out of curiosity are there similar issues for women carpenters, electricians, plumbers, farmers etc.? Is the focus of women in IT important for some reason? Where are all the male teachers and nurses?

    The fact that you mention a CEO building a nursery next to her office while cutting off work at home and drawing the conclusion that just the men were pissed makes no sense. Those desk workers might have been watching their kids at home while working from home and the new CEO just screwed them over and at the same time made it possible for her selfish ass to bring her child to work. You are wrong, if the male CEO had pulled the same BS they would have received more hate since it's a dick move expected from arrogant males.
  • Women in IT aren't just executives

    I've been in IT for over 30 years, and know many other women who also prefer to remain technical. But I'm not an executive. Does that mean that I don't count as being a woman in IT?