With 2002 just around the corner, it’s a good time to assess how women techies are faring in the IT industry. Are they still trying to crack the glass ceiling, or are they finally enjoying the same opportunities as men?

Pundits are drawing the same conclusion they did a decade ago: Women still have to deal with a “good old boys” network restricting them from senior management’s ranks. But despite the persistence of this problem, the fact is that the overall career outlook for women in technology has improved enormously in the past several years. What’s ironic, however, is that despite the great increase in the number of high-level positions now open to women in IT, there aren’t enough women seeking the jobs.

In this article, I’ll touch on some issues that have cropped up that could have women thinking twice about embarking on an IT career.

Approach to technology education may be to blame
What seemed like an attractive career option in the 1980s appears to have lost its luster for young women.

“In the early 1980s, women were turned on by technical careers because they were new and challenging,” explained Susan Metz, executive director of the Lore-El Center for Women and Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. Lore-El is a national organization focused on increasing women’s access to technical professions.

But since then, the number of women earning computer science degrees has fallen steadily, according to the Women’s Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development. In 1984, women made up 37 percent of the degree recipients in IT compared with 28 percent in 1994.

Some experts believe women are losing interest because of how today’s colleges are approaching technology education. According to a recently completed four-year study of 100 Carnegie Mellon students pursuing computer science degrees, there’s a gender gap in teaching technology these days.

In the study, Unlocking the Clubhouse, Women in Computing (MIT Press, $17.46), the authors conducted a four-year study of 100 Carnegie Mellon students pursuing computer science (CS) degrees to learn what they thought of the CS curriculum, method of teaching, and how the choices of men and women differ.

The study revealed that women want a broader picture of the technology field. Unlike male students, who cared only about mastering technological skills, women wanted to know how technology fit into an organization’s bigger picture and how it played a part in our lives.

According to the authors, this is evidence of a gender gap in technology education and shows that men and women relate to technology differently.

‘Work vs. home life’ issue complicates tech career goals
While Fisher describes educational approaches and current curriculums as two main culprits in thwarting female interest in IT careers, there are also several other issues that come into play.

Women looking to build a career in technology also discover they have to grapple with combining family and work, which may discourage them from the fast pace and demanding schedule of a career in the IT industry.

“Women must make difficult choices,” said Metz. “Once a maternity leave is over, do they quit their jobs or go back to work? And, if they do return to a fast-track career, their job takes over their life.”

More work is needed down the road
What does it all mean? First, colleges should rethink the way they teach technology so that their curriculum encompasses the learning needs of both men and women. Second, those corporations that still harbor glass ceilings should start overhauling their culture and step into the 21st century.

It isn’t enough for corporations to promote “children-centric” and “gender-friendly” workplaces. They need to help stimulate female interest in IT careers by offering strong career paths and advancement opportunities.

Are you one of the few women in IT?

Tell us what obstacles you’ve faced and what your take is on today’s technology educational approach, and we’ll share it with members in a future article.