IT Employment

Consultant encourages other women in IT to explore their options

The number of women in IT is shrinking and some see that as a problem. Susan Sales Harkins sees something different -- she sees opportunity.

Almost three decades ago, I jumped at the chance to join the computer literate. My employer bought one PC for the entire company at a cost of about $5,000. They trained everybody but me. I was told, "You don't need it; you won't be using it." Instead of going to lunch, I taught myself how to use the PC. It didn't take long for the word to get out; people started dropping spreadsheets and floppies on my desk. Ironically, the company spent several thousand dollars to train all the employees (both men and women) but me, yet I was the one truly using the system.

I wasn't a natural or a nerd. The PC was a means of advancement and that's exactly how it worked out for me. Moonlighting as a developer led to working for myself full-time, providing automated solutions for small businesses. Back then, we called it Applications Development.

For a short while, I returned to traditional employment -- it was a wonderful opportunity for me; however, I was stunned to learn I was the only woman developer. The company had plenty of women, but most of them were in supervisory and creative positions.

That was then, this is now

That was 20 ago, and there are fewer women in IT now than there were then. According to Gartner, the number of women in IT is shrinking: There were 42 percent in 1996, and it dropped to 32.4 percent in 2004. In 2007, that number shrank to 25 percent, according to government statistics. Women earned only 19 percent of Computer Science degrees in 2007, down from 37 percent in 1984.

Most analysts blame the decreasing number of women in IT on five issues:

  • Sexism
  • Image
  • Education
  • Family
  • Natural ability
Sexism

Any time this type of discussion comes up, many quickly point their fingers at sexism: It's a man's field, and they don't want women in it. (According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, only 13 percent of Fortune 500 technology companies have women corporate officers.) However, if you're ambitious, striking out on your own might be your best bet. As your own boss, you decide who to work with. You might have to face a bit of sexism, even as a consultant, but a sexist client can't hold you back the same way a sexist manager can. Even better, you can decide not to work with a sexist, which is not so easy to do in the corporate world. You can change jobs, but that's no guarantee that your next manager won't be just as bad or even worse.

Image

IT specialists are male geeks in white shirts with pocket protectors, ink stains, and bad hair, right? Does anyone really believe that women are so two-dimensional as to choose a career based on the daily uniform? Please. Very few women choose a career based on daily fashion, unless their career is fashion. Someone just made that one up. On the chance that it might sway someone, let me say this: Consultants dress for the job when meeting clients.

Education

Some speculate that our colleges are the culprit; their introductory courses fail to engage young women, who change majors before they get a chance to explore the field. If freshman women find Computer Science dull, most likely, they'll still find it dull as seniors. The truth is, many IT professionals don't have degrees in Computer Science at all. (Check out the results of a 2008 TechRepublic poll about members' educational backgrounds.) The right degree helps, but IT is one area where not having the right degree won't shut the door of opportunity. If you have the aptitude and experience, you can become an IT consultant without a Computer Science degree.

Family

Then there's the old reliable fallback on family. IT, as a rule, is demanding and can interfere with your personal life. Who are we kidding? Every position with the potential for advancement and high earnings is demanding.

In the February 2009 issue of Fast Company, Lynne d Johnson names some of the most influential women in IT:

  • Genevieve Bell, Director, Intel
  • Safra Catz, President, Oracle
  • Susan Decker, President, Yahoo
  • Julie Larson-Green, Corporate VP, Microsoft
  • Marissa Mayer, VP, Google
  • Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
  • Megan Smith, VP, Google
  • Padmasree Warrior, CTO, Cisco

Running your own consultancy can mean working long hours, sometimes with demanding clients. Women can meet that challenge as well as men; in fact, some of the most aggressive, high-powered, career-minded people I know are women.

Natural ability

Natural ability might have validity, but of all the suspects, it matters the least in my opinion. The science is still out on whether men are more naturally geared to work in IT than women. Women who enjoy IT will choose it, and some of them will make great consultants.

The opportunity is there

Gartner predicts that by 2012, 40 percent of women in traditional IT positions will move into entrepreneurial ventures. I believe women see IT as an opportunity and are striking out on their own. I suspect that women like Gina Bianchini, Cofounder and CEO of Ning, Caterina Fake, Cofounder of Flickr, Sandy Jen and Elaine Wherry, Cofounders of Meebo, Mary Lou Jepsen, Cofounder and CEO of Pixel Qi, Rashmi Sinha, Cofounder and CEO of SlideShare, Mena Trott, Cofounder and President of Six Apart saw the opportunities in IT. These women aren't consultants, but their entrepreneurship is inspiring. We won't all found corporations, but a consultancy, even a small one, can satisfy a powerful itch.

In my opinion, IT consulting offers more opportunity for women than traditional employment. You're the boss! If you love IT, but you find the corporate route limiting, becoming a consultant might be the right choice for you. You're running the show, and you define your success.

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About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

13 comments
KSoniat
KSoniat

My second job was in a textile machinery plant - we had all taken a cut in pay and they owner of the company was holding meetings to announce reinstatement of pay in separate salaried and hourly meetings. I am sitting in the salaried meeting and I realize I am the ONLY female there. The owner of the company came up, shook my hand and said "Glad to see you here". I was always treated well - and never realized until that moment how unique my situation was.

ajohansson
ajohansson

As a woman in IT I've only had a few sexist experiences, all from customers/clients. I find that my managers are fine with my gender or they don't hire me. (I did begin to leave my first name off my resume to get more callbacks though.) The trouble I've run into is with customers that don't want to follow instructions that aren't issued in a tenor voice. Over the years I run into this much less often though. I've recently taken on a consulting job for a small business. I'm still trying to decide if I like it well enough to consult full time. Perhaps I'll stray from the corporate path, time will tell.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Two of my clients have females in charge of software development. If we're going to be sexist about aptitude, I think men are more vulnerable to BS.

LarryD4
LarryD4

First off, good article which addresses the 400 pound gorilla that sits in the room. Personally, I've never had any issue with a "woman" in an IT role. Whether it was as a superior or a subordinate. My thinking comes down to this. You either can do the job or you can't. It has nothing to do with sex, race, or any other EEO/AA group. Yes their are the jerks who think women can't do "that" job. But most of the time, in my experience, those are the jerks who don't want to manage their people. It all comes down to management and supervision. If your work your people and guide them correctly and they have a brain the outcome is positive. If your work your people and guide them correctly and they don't have a brain then after enough screw ups "which must be documented" they move on or you move them on. To much of any one thing is bad for you. So I can't see not having the women in IT.

dominicolom
dominicolom

I am a woman in IT and I personally have faced discrimination when it comes down to certain things. I have been thinking about starting my own consulting company, but with this economy that has been put on the back burner.

ssharkins
ssharkins

That happens to me a lot -- when meeting with clients, I am often the only women in the group.

ssharkins
ssharkins

The best part of your message is "over the years, I run into this much less often though." That is good news! I've experienced sexism on the job, but not in IT -- probably one of the reasons I like it. :)

ssharkins
ssharkins

I can't personally relate to the issues myself. I know I have felt a bit self-conscious for being the only woman in a group, but you get over that if you want to work in the industry. If a company or client has discriminated against me, while working in IT, I didn't realize it. Out of IT, is a different story, but in IT, I've been lucky -- always treated with respect and courtesy. I don't want to try to deny anyone's experience though. I'm sure it happens. I work for myself because the traditional hierarchy can be limiting.

ssharkins
ssharkins

The economy might be the vehicle that presents an opportunity. I can't even venture what, exactly, but remain open -- you just never know.

KSoniat
KSoniat

I imagine you are speaking to managers / owners so that makes sense. What is your area of expertise?

ssharkins
ssharkins

Things haven't changed too much for me, still early though, but I'm hopeful. I love Mammoth Cave!

KSoniat
KSoniat

Is business still OK with the economy? (We went to Mamoth Cave for spring break a few years ago - had a GREAT time)

ssharkins
ssharkins

I'm an Analyst who caters to small business. While there is no such IT expertise, I would describe what I do as "research and implementation." I recommend more than I implement, and I still take on small development projects. Often, I research myself right out of new work. :)

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