Tech & Work

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.

Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!

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.

Editor's Picks