Making Women Feel Welcome in IT

Ann All

I'm not sure how successful the European Union was with its effort to persuade more women to pursue careers in information technology. But the fact that such an effort existed in the first place is proof that it's tough to attract women to IT careers.


While these statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor regarding women in IT professions are a little dated (2001), I suspect the percentages haven't changed much over the past eight years. According to the DOL, one out of 10 employed engineers was a woman in 2001, while two of 10 employed engineering technologists and technicians were women. Three out of 10 computer systems analysts, engineers, and scientists were females, and one out of four computer programmers was a woman.


IT is a career field dominated by males. And let's face it, we're talking about a certain kind of guy, one who is more comfortable with World of Warcraft than with the world of women. Schools and companies might have better luck interesting women in IT if they tried a little harder to project a non-geeky image.


Sapna Cheryan, a researcher from the University of Washington says the geek stereotype "can make women feel like they don't belong." Cheryan and colleagues tested this idea by alternately decorating a computer science classroom with objects viewed as stereotypically geeky -- Star Trek posters, video games and comic books -- or with more neutral objects such as coffee mugs, plants and art posters.


Thirty-nine college students spent some time in the room, then filled out a questionnaire on their attitudes toward computer science. Females who spent time in the geeky room reported less interest in computer science than women who hung out in the neutral room. The room decor didn't affect interest levels for men. In follow-up tests, researchers saw a similar effect in women who were told to imagine they were joining either a geekily decorated or a neutrally decorated company after graduation.


A ScienceNews item quotes Cheryan:

The environment can communicate a sense of belonging, but it also communicates a sense of exclusion, or a sense that this is not a place where I would fit in.

If attracting women to IT is tough, it may be even tougher to keep them there. Check out Computerworld's 2008 interview with Sylvia Ann Hewitt, one of several authors of the Athena Factor, a research project examining the career trajectories of women in IT. Hewlett and her colleagues found that 41 percent of folks between ages 25 and 30 and employed in lower-level IT careers were women, but 62 percent of them drop out of IT within 10 years.


The biggest contributing factor, said Hewlett, was "the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments." Sixty percent of women in science, engineering and technology had experienced sexual harassment, including demeaning and condescending attitudes and off-color jokes. Other issues included isolation due to a dearth of female colleagues and a lack of mentors or sponsors to help guide their career paths.


Mentors would go a long way toward easing these issues, said Hewlett:

... it prevents the isolation setting in, allows them to start mapping their career paths and insulates them from some of the worst repercussions of the macho behaviors. If you have only a few senior women, use some of your men. And use technology. Cisco is using telepresence technology to do virtual mentoring sessions across the world -- linking young women in India with senior women in San Jose.

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