The Gender Gap2 |
As an IT professional, you probably spend hours at a computer each day. This entails a great deal of anonymity: troubleshooting networks, working with remote servers or collaborating with invisible peers in a virtual world. After all, going online typically means going unseen.
But if you were to view the faces of your anonymous virtual peers, you would notice that most of them are, in fact, male. That’s because while women increasingly use technology in everyday life and even have outpaced men in many spaces online, they’re not making their way into IT careers.
In a 2007 Burst Media report, women said the Internet has become vital in organizing and planning their daily lives. Recent research by Solutions Research Group also found women are in control of most consumer electronics purchases, and more than ever are using online resources for both entertainment and to stay connected with others via blogging and social networking sites.
Despite this adoption of technology and the Internet in their personal lives, however, women are ill-represented in the IT workplace. While females fill 56 percent of the professional positions in the U.S. workforce, they account for only 27 percent of all IT employees, according the “NCWIT Scorecard 2007” report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), an organization dedicated to increasing female participation in the IT industry.
“Women are obviously using technology, and [they] purchase more technology devices — laptop computers, CDs, iPods — than men do,” said Jenny Slade, communications director at NCWIT. “But as far as creating that technology, they’re still just a minimal presence.”
Indeed, the number of women going into IT careers has been on the decline for decades. In 1984, women were awarded 37 percent of all computer science degrees; in 2007, that number had fallen to 19 percent, according to NCWIT.
Where Have All the IT Workers Gone?
A number of factors contribute to the downward trend in IT workers' numbers, Slade said. The most obvious is the dot-com bust of the late ’90s. This led to a sharp drop in young people of both genders seeking out the profession.
More specific to girls’ lagging interest in IT, Slade said they are not being encouraged from the beginning. At the middle and high school levels, computer science is not a core part of the curriculum — instead, schools view it as an elective, she said.
The statistics support her stance. The NCWIT report shows a gap in female participation in computer science Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school when compared to other subject areas. In 2006, just 15 percent of computer science AP tests were completed by girls — the lowest for all AP subjects — while girls made up 56 percent of test-takers for all subject areas.
Academic counselors generally are not promoting women’s study of technology in college, either, Slade said, even though it is great experience to have.
“If you go into biology, for example, or chemistry, you’re definitely going to be looking at a career in biotech — one of the highest-paying and viable careers,” Slade said. “So to have some background in computer science is just incredibly helpful; and yet, college guidance counselors are not encouraging women to study technology as part of their curriculum.”
Lyn Snyder, a computer programming professor at Owens Community College in Ohio, agreed. But she pointed out that the problem starts even earlier in some cases.
“The guys [in elementary school] get into computers so much earlier because all of those software games are geared toward men — the ‘shoot ’em up, bang, bang’ [types]. Teachers [need] to make sure that they don’t promote this gender bias and that it doesn’t become a thing in grade school for guys to be the ones that are standing around the [classroom] computer.”
Owens Community College has recognized the importance of reaching out to a younger age group, and the IT program has focused recruiting efforts down to the seventh-grade level.
“We realized that many of them already have it set in their minds by ninth and 10th grade what they think they want to be,” Snyder said.
Kinzie Doll, a technology assistant at Liberty Public School District in Missouri, graduated from high school in 2007 and said it was encouragement from her teachers that made the difference.
“My middle school [computer] teacher kind of got me into [technology],” Doll explained. “My biggest influence, though, was my teacher I ended up having my senior year. She’s very motivating, and she does as much as she can to get her students to be successful.”
In eighth grade, Doll looked into Cisco’s two-year Networking Academy program at a local technology school. After a tour, she decided it was a good fit. But out of 40 students in her class, Doll said only four were girls — and two of them dropped out after the first year.
One reason she said young girls are shying away from IT is a sense of intimidation. “I think a lot of people are intimidated by [the industry] because it’s so male-dominated,” she said. “There is this mentality that girls can’t do technology. [In school], I was all about showing the boys up. I’m very, ‘You tell me I can’t do it, and I’ll show you I can.’”
Doll has proven this through her impressive IT credentials. As a sophomore in high school, she became certified in Microsoft Office 2003, and by graduation, she also had passed her A+, i-Net+ and CCNA exams. She also recently won first place in a SkillsUSA post-secondary competition that showcases the country’s brightest technical students.
Another challenge to the diversity of the IT workforce is the deeply ingrained perception about what kind of person makes a good IT professional.
“Computer science and IT have more of an image problem now than they did back in 1983-1984, when desktop computers were new for everyone,” Slade said. “Now, it’s a lot easier to point to a picture of a pale white guy with glasses and a pocket protector and say, ‘That’s a geek who’s into computers.’”
Even beyond the stereotype of the professionals themselves is the idea of what the job entails. Many still have a picture in their minds of an IT worker sitting in a dark room in the basement writing code or playing with hardware.
“We try to expose the diversity of what a networking career looks like to get people around the myth that if you come into [IT], you sit in the back room,” said Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, general manager of Learning@Cisco. “That’s not really what IT careers look like anymore. You might start off doing networking operations, [but] you’re still interfacing with lots of people and talking to customers and [there’s] very much a social aspect to the job.”
Marketing IT to Women
One way to overcome these stereotypes is through the use of awareness campaigns and role models. Meeting women who are conquering the IT world helps other females see the profession as something more attainable for themselves.1 | 2 |