The critical shortage of women in IT

Reversing downward spiral in ranks of female IT workers is critical to solving technology worker shortage.

The IT worker shortage is fast becoming a crisis that could threaten the  global technology and economic strength, according to industry observers and government officials.

And many argue that the solution is to bring more women into the IT workforce.

“If we continue to utilize the talents of American women – virtually half the population – at the level we are now, we will not have the workers we need in this country,” says Arthur Bienenstock, former associate director of science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Science and technology are critical to our ability, as a country, to maintain our standard of living, the value of the dollar, even national defense. This could very well be a problem for us going ahead. The way out of it is largely to have more women in science and technology.”

And that’s a critical step – for women and the IT industry, according to Anita Borg,  former president of the Institute for Women and Technology, a nonprofit agency in Washington. “There’s all this talk about worker shortages, but you can make the argument that this is where the shortage comes from,” Borg says. “The numbers say if we had been attracting women at the same rate as men, there wouldn’t be a shortage.”

Only 20% of engineers in the United States today are women and about a third of them are software engineers. Another report shows that women only represent 11% of Microsoft Certified Professionals, 26.9% of systems analysts and computer scientists, and 28.5% of computer programmers.

In fact, the numbers indicate that the IT gender gap is fluctuating over the past 30 years. For example, in 1984, 37% of computer science degrees were awarded to women. By 1998, that number had dropped to 16%.

“It’s noticeably decreasing,” says Martha Daniel, an 18-year IT veteran and CEO of Information Management Resources, Inc. (IMRI), an IT staffing, consulting and outsourcing company in Costa Mesa, Calif. “I first came through in the late ’70s and ’80s, and there used to be a lot more women in the field. It’s frustrating, and it’s sad for me.”

The root of the problem

There are several reasons why women aren’t joining the IT ranks and why those who do are not staying. According to industry analysts, here are the key issues:

Some teachers, guidance counselors and parents are still guiding girls away from science and math classes. In fact, Bienenstock says his own daughter, who excelled in math, was discouraged from taking math classes.

Most science teachers – and hence role models – are men. For example until recently , at the university level in the U.S., 94% of the engineering faculty ware male.

The stereotype of the geeky IT worker with the pocket protector, high-water pants and taped-together glasses is a tough one to swallow for teenage girls, especially those who may be wrestling with a general drop in self-esteem that tends to occur at that age.

The male-dominated industry can be a lonely and tough old-boys-club to break into. A female manager at a Fortune 500 company recalls an incident that occurred after she had won a promotion. She was having a pleasant conversation with a male colleague prior to a meeting. As other participants entered the room, the man abruptly flopped on the floor and shouted, “Just walk in your high heels right up my back to your next promotion.”

The long hours often expected in the booming high-tech industry are difficult to balance with family responsibilities.

Ileana Streinu, assistant professor of computer science at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., became pregnant with her first child while still a student. She recalls a student colleague saying to her: “Ah, I see you ‘ve given up mathematics for babies.” Of course, she did not give up math and today teaches computer science to an all-female student body.

Teresa Klein, a project manager in engineering software at IBM, tells a similar tale of teachers discouraging her from taking calculus. At one point, a college professor told her, “A sorority girl like you doesn’t have any business taking computer science.” Klein persevered and graduated on the dean’s list.

“We still operate under the societal stereotypes of what’s appropriate for women and what’s appropriate for men,” Bienenstock says. The U.S. Department of Labor still lists IT as a nontraditional field for women.

These attitudes are particularly frustrating to the women who encountered them when they went through school and now have girls of their own in the school system.

“I just don’t see what my friends and I expected to see at this point,” says Gail McCarthy, director of strategic science and technology at Electric Power Research in Palo Alto. “Those of us who graduated in the ’70s and early ’80s thought we would be the last generation to go through this. We never thought our daughters would get negative messages about what they can be and what they cannot be.”

Linda Scherr, director of Women in Technology at IBM, says it’s a problem that needs to be caught early before girls begin opting out of key math courses and limiting their future options.

“When you’re 13 even, you ‘re making key decisions about what courses to take and what courses to opt out of,” says Scherr, who has degrees in mathematics and computer science. “Then when you’re 18, you start thinking about careers and money and by then it’s too late. We’ve got to get girls in the pipeline from an early age.”

Following the pipeline

Several proponents of that pipeline say it needs to follow women right through their careers because there’s a high dropout rate for women once they do enter the IT field. They report that women are ignored in meetings, second-guessed despite years of experience and excluded from overseas teams because the host country doesn’t want to work with women.

“I ‘m in a position where my job is to give technical advice to people. I can’t tell you how often I have to put a man on the phone to repeat what I ‘ve just said so someone will take the advice seriously,” says a female 22-year IT veteran and a systems analyst for a worldwide insurance company. “A lot of people just don’t picture a woman in a highly technical position regardless of how much experience you have.”

A program manager at a U.S. transportation company says her company is generally supportive of its female employees, but women are still regularly passed over for jobs in lieu of men with less experience.

“My company does a lot to encourage women in science and technology, but I cannot help but notice going into board rooms, that 99% of those board members are male,” she says. “And when it comes to selecting members for boards and committees – people in decision-making, change-making positions – you don’t see women.”

She adds that the lack of women in high places only makes her more determined to get on those boards. “The more frustrated I get, the more I fight,” she says. “It wasn’t easy to get here, and I ‘m not going to give up because of anybody.”

But not every woman is inspired by the dearth of women around her.

One application development manager for an Atlanta manufacturer simply got worn down after 12 years of fighting an uphill battle. A colleague once invited her to a conference simply to try to coerce her into sharing his room. She also was passed over for a promotion that would have taken her to another state because her bosses didn’t think her husband would want to move.

“The best course for women is to withdraw their labor. That’s key,” she says. “If I were sexually assaulted, I would do something about it, but not for anything less than that. It’s not worth the fight. Go find an employer who will treat you more equally.”

This woman did leave her technical job for a position on the business side. “It’s more acceptable to have a businesswoman than a female engineer,” she says. “A lot of women in tech have been pioneers, but a lot of pioneers end up with arrows in their backs. After a while you wonder why you ‘re bothering. The word ‘pioneer’ on a gravestone looks better on somebody else’s than on yours.”

The worsening shortage

The problem is that the U.S. economy can’t afford to be driving away qualified IT workers. Approximately  9 million jobs in STEM with about 70% in computers and IT positions are vacant in the United States.

And it’s only going to get worse as business dependence on high tech grows. The predictions are that the economy will generate 1.3 million new IT jobs by the next five years. And American universities and colleges, with a reported 49,300 computer science graduates per year, are not feeding enough new workers into the field to even come close to keeping up.

Industry analysts say increasing the number of minorities in the field is another key piece of the puzzle. A predominantly white male workforce could be disastrous for companies dependent on producing new technology and for those simply trying to run their businesses. “Companies will go out of business because they don’t have the technical people they need,” Scherr says. “There is the crisis.”

And it’s a coming crisis that the Commerce Department has been studying for the past two years. “Technology is the key to prosperity and economic growth, so we ‘re looking ahead at a major, major problem for the United States,” says Kelly Carnes, assistant secretary for technology policy with the Commerce Department. “It’s simple. The nation cannot afford to be wasting the talent from half our population.”

Part of the problem is that the U.S. has been solely focused enabling the businesses to bring in foreign workers for a limited amount of time.

We have been dependent on immigrants and offshore workers for science and technology for at least 50 years. “Other countries are becoming increasingly aware of the value of those workers, and they will start keeping them in their own countries. That means they will not be available to come to the United States. We will have to fill our own jobs.”

It will be harder to fill those jobs because as a country we have been so lax in training such a high percentage of our population, IMRI’s Daniel says.

“We were thinking short-term fix,” she says. “We could only bring in so many people from India in a given period of time, and we maxed that out. We had a potential work force here, but we didn’t want to take the time to train them. So we brought workers in from other countries and ended up giving those skills to them. Now they’ll go home and take their training home with them, and we ‘re completely dependent.”

Companies generally decide to bring in trained workers rather than invest in the American education system or deal with expenses such as childcare, which they often assumed would come hand-in-hand with an increase in female workers.

“How does it come to pass that we can go find people, spend the time and money to get them green cards, spend money to bring them and their entire families here and deal with language problems?” Ramsey asks. “But when it comes to a woman, who might have a child, that’s an untenable situation. Women have the brains for this, so why aren’t we getting them into the field? Why are we losing them?”

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