Is IT unfriendly to women?

Within an overall workforce comprising over 50 percent women, only 20 percent of the IT workforce are women, and far fewer are CIOs. Something definitely appears to be wrong with this picture.

By Judy Armstrong in conjunction with the Enterprise Computing Institute

Within an overall workforce comprising over 50 percent women, only 20 percent of the IT workforce are women, and far fewer are CIOs. Something definitely appears to be wrong with this picture.

It has been clearly demonstrated that many women bring valuable skills to IT organizations. Moving into the new millennium, companies that can learn to recruit, develop, and retain women CIOs and managers will be far ahead of the others. How can we better tap this vast resource? I explore this issue in detail, based on my real-life experiences as a CIO as well as the experiences of others. In this article, I'll discuss some possible answers to questions such as:

  • Why IT is unfriendly to women?
  • What IT is really losing by limiting women in the workforce?
  • How IT can change to attract and retain more women?
  • Why some women have been successful despite the constraints and limitations?
  • How can we learn from the experiences of other women CIOs?

While women appear to face some unique issues, many of these issues arise from common problems that all CIOs face--man or women, young or old. This article highlights the importance of looking at common issues from different perspectives. Successful CIOs do this every day.

Why single out a particular group of CIOs?

According to a study by the Department of Labor Women's Bureau, women receive only 9 percent of engineering-related bachelor's degrees and fewer than 28 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees. This represents a decline of 37 percent over the past 20 years. Several other recent surveys indicate that few women become CIOs because the lifestyle and the work environment are unfriendly to women.

Women CIOs have success stories, but the truth is that most people--including those in our own profession--don't hear about them or seem to care.

My belief is that it is important to take a closer look at why IT is unfriendly to women, what IT is losing by remaining unfriendly, what we can do about it, and most importantly, to highlight the attributes of those women who, in spite of all this, have been successful.

Why Is IT unfriendly to women?

In many ways, IT is unfriendly because of the nature of the job. IT is a 24/7 job. Achieving any significant position in IT often means putting your career before many other aspects of your life. You will find yourself putting in 70- or 80-hour weeks, becoming deeply committed to both the short-term and long-term needs of your career, and this will result in the loss of time spent with family or in personal activities.

When asked in a recent survey if their IT jobs were meeting expectations, 52 percent of women said they worked more hours than expected. The same survey stated that 40 percent of the men felt the same way. It is hard work, and most people, especially those who want to participate in a significant family life, are not willing to make the sacrifice.

What Is IT losing when women leave the IT workforce?

Many studies show that women excel at collaboration, juggling multiple tasks, and prioritization. Women have a very different way of looking at problems. Research suggests that women see more nuances and have a more holistic approach than men, who are more linear thinkers. Without both kinds of thinking, you lose the breadth of perspective that can approach a problem from multiple directions, resulting in creative solutions otherwise unavailable.

Women managers who possess the inherent skills required of a good manager often add compassion, nurturance, and sensitivity to the role. While this is not vital to success, it does help to build teams that work well together.

Women look to maximize, not necessarily to win, in competitive situations. Often, it is not as important to win as it is to achieve the maximum gain.

Another loss is that of sheer talent. The more people you have in the talent pool, the better your chances of success. Getting and keeping good talent is expensive; replacing a valued worker can cost a company two to three times her annual salary.

Diversity also adds to the overall health of a profession. Individuals and organizations need to work on creative ways to attract this diversity, not only in gender but in all other ways as well. We would be no healthier if current balances were reversed.

(To read an interview in which Three women CIOs discuss success factors and barriers, click here.)

What do we need to change to attract more women into IT

A critical area of focus is on adolescent girls.

  • Educators should focus on what is wrong with the computing culture and how to change it rather than on why girls don't like technology. Educators must also focus on teaching girls complex technology skills beyond the traditional word processing and presentation tools
  • Girls are influenced against technology at an early age by computer games that are designed and marketed toward boys. These games are violent and often boring. They are not attractive to girls, who want games that are more interactive, engaging, and creative.

Once we do engage women and attract them to the profession, we need to keep them. The hiring organizations have a responsibility, as do the women themselves.

  • As women, we need to take personal responsibility for making change. We need to take the best practices that men have developed and learn to make them work for us in our own way. Take networking as an example. Men spend more time networking to further their careers. Women network too, but we tend to network with people whom we like and who share our value systems. We need to retain those aspects of our networking but incorporate this style into the business world.
  • Women must mentor other women. We must help them learn early what it took us years to learn, and we must find as many ways as possible to share what we know.

·        Organizations can contribute by putting reasonable work and family programs in place. Practices such as telecommuting and flextime help everyone achieve balance.

  • Women often do carry extra family burdens, and managers can help by supporting creative scheduling. Several years ago, when I was programming and raising children, my manager let me leave early to care for my children and then return to work after the children were in bed and finish my hours. This was very innovative at the time.
  • Work/life balance will always be a challenge, and it is up to us to keep working on better ways to achieve it.

Why do some women prevail and others do not?

When I speak with other women CIOs and technology leaders, the most prominent common trait is that they never knew they couldn't be a leader or a CIO.  I have never had a boring day. You have to relish that part and the stress that comes with it to love this work. The most important things a woman can bring into this profession are willingness to ask tough--and sometimes obvious--questions, belief in her own abilities, and a tendency to find great humor in painful circumstances."

Women who aspire to be CIOs, more often then men, must find unique ways to balance family and job or in many cases forgo having a family. Okay, I hear a lot of mumbling from some of you women saying, "but men don't have to give up having a family." That is only partially true. Many successful men have been divorced several times or are estranged from their families, and many have remained bachelors until they have reached a certain level of success. True, others have wives who stay home and raise the children, but remember that those women chose to be stay-at-home moms. There is nothing to stop you from finding and marrying a stay-at-home dad or a man who wants to share your success by taking on extra work at home. Often, it is your own views on how you should act as a wife and mother that limit your opportunities.

Finally, the successful women are willing to take on projects and tasks that no one else wants or is willing to do. Tackling projects that your boss does not want to do will challenge your skills and stretch your abilities, leading to growth and exposure. Visibility is absolutely essential to your growth and can be enhanced by taking on those unpopular tasks. This may be the very key to your success.

What Is different for women CIOs in their first 90 days?

Women executives face a few unique challenges when starting in a new position. One of the biggest challenges is that they can't use the men's room. You think that’s funny, and it is, but it’s also true! Any man reading this article will know there are many issues discussed and potentially resolved in the men’s room. How do I know? Because a few places I have worked have had the walls of the ladies room back-to-back with the men’s room and enough air ducts to allow conversation to flow freely between facilities. I have no easy answer for this one. The best I personally have been able to do is to ask the men whom I have influence with and with whom I have built relationships to tell me when a critical conversation or decision has been made when I am not present. Making it funny by mentioning the proverbial "men’s room" always helps.

On a more serious note, we will not automatically be accepted into the club. We need to spend time building the relationships, trust, and support that may come automatically to a man in the same position. However, men can’t keep those inherited gifts without doing the same work. The difference is that we have to earn it up front. So, focus on finding key influencers and building those relationships first. And remember that these influencers are not necessarily your fellow executive staff members.

Your staff will most definitely test your mettle. We may not like it, but some of the staff will view you as "a woman' and test you to see if you have backbone. It is not necessary to overcompensate; you need to be yourself and rely on all the terrific skills that got you where you are. But be careful to recognize when you are being tested, consider the source of the test, and respond to achieve the result you want. Show respect for the existing staff, give everyone a chance, and don’t take anyone else’s word for another’s behavior--learn for yourself.

Your first 90 days are your time to assess. You should be gathering and understanding the most critical business needs, validating them, assessing how your staff is prepared (or not) to handle them and whether you are staffed and organized correctly to achieve the expected results. This establishes the expectations against which you want to be assessed and reviewed; in the end, will appreciate your strategy but reward your execution.

The Enterprise Computing Institute helps IT professionals solve problems and simplify the management of IT through consulting and training based on the best-selling Enterprise Computing Institute book series.