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

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.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

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. 

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