The IT profession is rare within the larger career landscape, in that virtually anyone can jump in and excel in the field—regardless of race, color, ethnic background, or gender. It’s an industry built on the premise that your value as an employee is based on your technical knowledge and not ethnicity or gender.

Yet, while the field attracts thousands of workers each year, there is, by all accounts, still only a small minority population working in IT today. In this article, I’ll take a look at some reasons why minorities are not entering the IT industry and I’ll examine the impact of diversification in the IT workplace.

Defining minority
Webster’s dictionary defines “minor” as “inferior in size or degree.” In applying that definition to the IT field, I have coined the word “MinorIT” to describe the small number of minorities working in the IT industry.

What constitutes a minority group? In the context of this article, I will refer to a minority group as people of a race or ethnic background other than Caucasian, American males. This would include, but is not limited to, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Women, of all races, obviously are a minority population in IT.

The first issue that always crops up when discussing minority populations in the IT industry is whether there really is a shortage in the field. Those who believe there is a shortage point to their own workplaces as examples of organizations in which small numbers of minorities hold tech positions. Others say that a shortage can’t be properly determined, as no formal statistics or figures detail the exact number of minorities working within the IT field.

What cannot be disputed is that minorities constitute a mere fraction of the total IT workforce. A recent White House advisory group on minorities in the IT field noted that African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans constitute 25 percent of the total U.S. workforce, but only 6.7 percent of the IT workforce. If you’ve recently attended a large technology conference and scanned the room, those numbers are easily confirmed.

Why so few?
The reason for so few minorities in the IT field has been the focus of studies and surveys for years. A March 2001 QEV Analytics report commissioned by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) produced interesting findings. This survey, conducted among minorities in IT, cites early exposure to technology as the main reason minority group members decide to enter the IT field. Following a close second is the influence of a family member or friend.

The results should not be surprising to anyone. Minority or not, many IT professionals enter their chosen field after learning of the opportunities, challenges, and rewards that this career offers.

The greatest source of early exposure, according to the survey, should come from education. But unfortunately, many minority-populated schools and communities lack the essential resources needed to expose young people to technology. This concept, known as the “Digital Divide,” describes the grossly disproportionate numbers of minorities that have access to technology in the United States compared to the majority of the population.

This lack of exposure is the primary reason minorities do not enter IT. Entire books and numerous surveys and studies have attempted to identify the factors behind the Digital Divide, and while solutions are being proposed, there hasn’t been much improvement.

Influencing a population
The needed influence of family and friends in promoting tech careers to minorities is also lacking. Too often, many people assume a stereotypical view of IT workers as “super smart” people that must enjoy sitting in front of the computer all day. This belief—known as the “geek factor”—makes a career in IT unappealing to many young people, no matter what their ethnic background.

Those of us in IT know that being “super smart” isn’t a prerequisite for a tech career. For example, the ability to troubleshoot a problem is often a result of the resources available—i.e., books, peers, technical support—and not so much the ability to retain large amounts of information.

Many IT jobs, such as field technicians and technical trainers, do not involve constant exposure to a computer all day. More often than not, the success of people in these jobs depends more heavily on interpersonal skills than technical know-how.

Although it’s a widely held view, this so-called “geek factor” is in fact a fallacy that must be dispelled, especially among minorities, if we’re going to change the perception of the IT industry.

The benefits of diversity
The initiative to boost minorities in the tech sector began to take shape just as the economy was booming—a prime time for such an effort, as unemployment was at its lowest rate in years and companies were fighting over a limited number of available technology workers.

At that time, industry organizations were aiming at increasing the number of minorities in IT to ensure that the technical workforce had ample resources to meet staffing needs. But just a year later, the “bubble” has burst, as tech companies are laying off thousands. In the face of such an industry crisis, increasing diversity within the IT workforce has dropped dramatically on most everyone’s priority list.

The benefits of diversity in the IT industry, however, have never been in question. First of all, an increased pool of talented IT workers provides organizations with a greater selection of qualified job candidates—which can result in increased productivity, better skill sets, and lower staff turnover.

A diversified workforce also drives innovation and change—attributes often identified with “good” companies to work for. The belief is that organizations with increased minority employment and participation are generally more creative and innovative due to the multiple perspectives and ways of thinking that the employees exchange. This leads to inventive problem solving inside, and outside, of an organization.

In fact, the positive results of a diverse IT workforce have prompted several technology companies, including Microsoft, IBM, and Intel, to actively recruit more minorities.

Keep diversity in mind
What CIOs and tech leaders need to keep in mind while hiring is that the benefits of increasing minority participation are far-reaching for both IT staff and the organization as a whole.

It’s also worthwhile to check out the current TechRepublic discussion relating to the IT minority workforce numbers, as your peers have offered more than just a few suggestions on how (or if) this detrimental trend toward low numbers of minorities in IT can be changed.