Where are the women in IT consulting?

In Chip Camden's 20 years of consulting, he has only worked with one female consultant. He looked into whether his experience is unique in the IT industry. Find out what he learned.

In almost 20 years of consulting, I have had the pleasure (or misfortune) to work with a variety of people: business owners, C-levels, managers, developers, marketers, writers, testers, support people, and lawyers, to name a few. I have encountered a number of capable women occupying each of those positions. My occupation of IT consultant, however, noticeably lacks a female contingent. Of all the other consultants with whom I've worked, only one of them was female -- not counting friends here on TechRepublic and elsewhere on the web. Since I have not consciously selected against working with women, I have to wonder why that is the case. Does my experience mirror the industry, or is it just my bad luck?

Googling for numbers on this phenomenon didn't provide me with answers, but it did yield a number of potential contacts who I thought might be able to supply them. I sent messages out to all of them. The first response came from Women in Consulting (WIC), a San Francisco Bay area group dedicated to promoting the consulting businesses of their members. Avery Horzewski, President of WIC and CEO of AVE Consulting, granted me a telephone interview, which I'll summarize.

WIC is serendipitously compiling the results of a member survey, which the organization conducts annually. Because of the high percentage of women in its membership (ca. 90% - yes, they do have some male members), the group doesn't yield any statistically significant comparisons between men and women in the field. Interestingly, of the respondents who are in the top 20% for gross income, only 13% of those are women -- but again, the sample sizes are too small to be conclusive.

I suggested that perhaps some women find the lifestyle of the consultant prohibitive: the unpredictable income, long hours, lack of benefits, etc. Avery replied that, on the contrary, many women find the flexibility a draw -- especially for those who run their own businesses. She said that those women entrepreneurs can also command higher fees and respect in their clients' offices -- eliminating the so-called "glass ceiling" to some degree. So consulting may be a refuge of sorts from gender discrimination.

Ms. Horzewski told me that, anecdotally, she observes a recent rise in the number of female consultants -- but that perception may not hold true across all industries. More than half of all WIC members consult in marketing, where women might be accepted as more authoritative than they are in IT.

I contacted a well-known advocate for women in technology: author and good friend Shelley Powers. She wrote back to me with the following response:

College statistics document the fact that the number of women entering the IT field, at least those with a computer science degree, is declining. Significantly. Whether this impacts on the actual number working with computer technologies is more difficult to determine, because the computer science field is not the same as it once was.

Nowadays, computer science isn't dominated by button down, pasty white, geeky men with [an] engineering background, living in barren (or bizarre) cubicles, hacking away at computers 18 hours in a day. With the explosive growth in web and mobile computing, people working in "IT", if we want to still use this term, may actually come from a variety of backgrounds -- some not even remotely connected with either computer science or engineering. There are women in technology, though they may not enter the field with comp-sci degrees. There are fewer women in the field than men, true, but we do exist.

However, we do not _see_ the women in technology. As an example of lack of visibility for women, let's look at the HTML5 working group at the W3C. Women do participate in this effort, but seemingly without acknowledgment. For instance, there are several women involved in the accessibility task force for the group (among them, Laura Carlson, Cynthia Shelly, Judy Brewer, and Janina Sajka), yet when it comes to accessibility issues, the public _sees_ this effort as dominated by men. There are women involved with HTML5 video, such as the highly respected Silvia Pfeiffer, yet, again, men dominate the more visible discussions about this new capability.

Women actively participate, but their participation is frequently drowned out by the guys. The more contentious the issue, the less the women are heard.

I believe the same happens in other areas of technology: women get drowned out by the guys. Conferences have one women among 20 men; most articles and books seemingly are written by men (when in reality, a significant number of both are authored by women); men are quoted first, referred to first, given lead positions, or otherwise, allowed to dominate.

To demonstrate, let's again return to HTML5, and the organizations and companies, such as browser companies, most interested in this new technology.

The W3C, a seemingly egalitarian organization, has no women in its Technical Architecture Group (TAG), and only a few in its leadership positions. The WhatWG has no women in its invitation-only membership, and few women participate in the email lists. Apple has no women among its top administration and design positions. Opera's executive team has only one woman, and her position is in human resources. Only one woman, Jen Fitzpatrick, is listed as a key Google engineer, and only two women, Marissa Mayer and Stephanie Tilenius, are associated with a Google product. There are women involved with Internet Explorer, but the faces we see and voices we hear, most frequently, are male. Only Mozilla [of the major tech companies] has a woman, Mitchell Baker, in a position of highest authority.

So even if women are interested in the fields associated with IT, they're rarely seen or heard, and seldom acknowledged. Given this, it's not difficult to understand why women _who may be interested in web and mobile technologies_ are becoming less interested in IT as a profession.

This makes me wonder: have I really worked with more female consultants than I remember? My memory can be a bit unreliable at times (just ask my wife), but if I suffer from the "disappearing women" syndrome, then it would have to be a pretty bad case of it.

Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) responded with some interesting data. The organization compiled a report (PDF), "Women in IT: The Facts," (PDF) in which they note that only 25% of all IT jobs are filled by women. This percentage has been declining since 1991 from its high of 36%. And of the women who leave technology jobs, 22% of them become self-employed in their technical field.

Going independent is the most popular escape from the corporate work environment for women who decide to remain in their field, and not just in IT. Self-employment among women in general has been on the rise. Quoting Ms. Sanders:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009 Current Population Survey says that about 8% of working women consider themselves self-employed, vs. 14% of men. The percentage of working women who were self-employed has been rising (from 4.4 percent in 1976 and 5.2 percent in 2008).

Although many women become self-employed, they also appear to leave self-employment sooner. I spoke with Kelly Harman, President-elect of Women In Technology (WIT) (I was pleased to learn that she is a TechRepublic member). Ms. Harman opined that women more than men fall into the trap of starting at too low a rate (because they enter consulting motivated more by the freedom and flexibility it offers than by the monetary gain), and that they often don't feel able to demand more when they realize it isn't enough. As a result, they become overworked and underpaid and eventually decide to do something else.

WIT's motto is "from the classroom to the boardroom." They focus on training young women to overcome their socialization where it hurts them, and leverage it where it helps. That means learning to respectfully demand attention to overcome the "disappearing woman" syndrome. It also means using a woman's ability to build consensus and insure that everyone's concerns are heard. Those skills are especially important for consultants, who often bear a great deal of responsibility for the outcome without having the authority to command participants to act.

Some readers are probably thinking, "why worry about it?" We independent consultants have plenty of problems without fostering more competition. Besides egalitarian idealism, why should we care about women in consulting?

When it comes to idealism, I've never been much of a champion for equal rights. However, I strongly believe in equal liberties. Thus, even though I don't advocate creating artificial constraints to impose equality, I am dead set against any impediment to the free exercise of any vocation that an individual may choose. The best candidate should get the work. That works out better for everyone -- even the person who got bumped. They'll improve their skills or move on to something they can do better.

It's not just about competition, though. WIC's motto is "foster collaboration, not competition." Although the "lone wolf" may be the typical personality who is drawn to consulting, we can all do much more when we work together. We benefit from having a network of associates on whom we can lean when our abilities don't cover the whole gamut of what's needed. Not to stereotype, but women can bring a different perspective and set of strengths to the table, whether those differences come from nature or nurture. To alienate women from this industry would be far worse than to exclude anyone who prefers Microsoft products.

If you're a woman who is interested in getting into IT consulting, read this TechRepublic article by Susan Harkins, "Consultant encourages other women in IT to explore their options."

By Chip Camden

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...