Is IT a sexist industry, and is it growing worse?

Statistics indicate that fewer women are choosing IT as a career; is it a result of sexism in the industry?

Last week, Fox Business ran a story about women in technology, with host Stuart Varney musing that there might be "something about the female brain that is a deterrent from getting women on board with tech," and that keeps companies from putting women in positions of authority in technology companies.

Wow. The notion as stated on Fox is appalling at face value, but the imbalance is certainly real, and not just at the executive level; women are scarce at all levels in technology, it seems.

When I entered the field, unthinkable years ago, I was a junior programmer in a group of 13 that contained five women. Today, more than two decades later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the percentage of women in a typical US IT shop has fallen below 25 percent.

In colleges around the country, the story is even worse: back in my day, more than a third of all computer science degrees were awarded to women; today, it's a disappointing 12 percent. And, ironically, among high school students, girls are more likely to be generally computer literate than boys (although boys are more likely, three-to-two, to have actually done computer programming).

Clearly, things are going in the wrong direction.

What's going on here? Why are women steering clear of technology careers?

Several theories are out there, trying to explain the imbalance. A study of Canadian high school students has shown that few young women are attracted to the field to begin with, citing a perceived life of isolation, which the media fuels - the dreaded geek factor. Fewer than five percent of young women arriving on undergraduate campuses do so with intent to pursue a computer science degree.

And once they've arrived on campus, there does indeed appear to be a sexist force at work: a 2006 study published by MIT Press asserts that undergraduate classroom environments tend to weed women out by emphasizing competition over cooperation, and that undergraduate laboratory environments, where teamwork is often taught, tend not to be inclusive of women.

Once in the workplace, women report 10 percent lower perceived receptivity to their input than their non-technical peers; they also report less perceived advocacy for their skills. It's not hard to see why little girls, dreaming of what they want to grow up to be, might seldom picture themselves arriving in a .NET developer's cubicle.

What are we missing out on, given this state of affairs? Let's set aside the obvious, that we're truncating nearly half the intellectual and creative potential we could be accessing, and note that one of the nagging deficits in the IT workplace today is diverse communications skills, in which women in general exceed men; or that turnover has become outrageously expensive, with the cost of replacing an IT professional now often exceeding the amount of a year's salary, and the note that women tend to move from job to job less frequently than men.

The big one here, however, is that the Information Age is burgeoning all around us, and we aren't just a service industry; we are shaping the world to come. The very forum in which you are reading these words right now has been a game-changer, not just in the performance of business tasks, but every aspect of our daily lives, social, political, and economic. The more input we have into the shape of things to come, the better off we all will be, as our technological future unfolds. To even partially exclude half of the human input we might introduce into the evolution of technology, company by company, in the coming years seems not only wasteful but foolish.

How we can move more firmly in the direction of rectifying this imbalance is something for an upcoming discussion.