Why Do Women Leave IT?

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 06-07-2007

Why Do Women Leave IT?

Women are leaving information technology jobs for a variety of interrelated reasons, including historical patterns of labor relations and persistent problems within the field. Negative implications of the trend include reduced opportunities for women in the workplace, decreasing innovation and competitiveness in technology and the economy at large, but it defies a single, silver-bullet solution.

Research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that employment of women in a broad range of IT positions has declined in relative and absolute terms over the past several years. Some 984,000 women worked in eight IT categories in 2000, accounting for 28.9 percent of all employed IT workers. The corresponding numbers for 2006, when overall IT employment hit an all-time high of nearly 3.47 million, show a 7.7 percent drop from 2000, with 908,000 women working in IT, or just 26.2 percent of the total.

Though the number of female CIOs has increased slightly since 2000, to about 9 percent, overall IT leadership roles for women have receded to 2002 levels, according to a study conducted by the human resources consultancy Sheila Greco Associates. The not-for-profit research group Catalyst reports that women last year held 15.6 percent of all corporate officer positions, compared with 13.2 percent of comparable IT positions; women held 14.6 percent of corporate board seats, versus just 9.6 percent of board seats in IT service companies.

As we began discussing this trend at the CIO Insight website this spring, readers flooded us with theories and anecdotes about challenges facing women in the field. It's a depressingly familiar litany, from the low numbers of female students in math and science classes to the inhospitable, boys-club feel of many IT shops and the lack of networking opportunities and mentors for women. But all of the negatives would seem to have been realities over the life of IT as a specialty. What has changed? There has been little discussion of triggers for the female brain drain. As Lynne Ellyn and Christine Davis of IT advisory firm Cutter Consortium put it, "The exodus has been quiet."

Part of the answer might be contained in the question itself. Perhaps the high employment figures for women in IT at the end of the boom-and-bubble cycle were to some extent an artifact of that time, and the drop-off in subsequent years was driven in part by workplace dynamics beyond technology itself and reinforced by the specifics of the tech workplace.

The idea is that women along with racial and ethnic minorities, including blacks and Hispanics, according to a 2005 survey by the Information Technology Association of America have fared worse in IT jobs than white men during the downturn and subsequent recovery because their position in that marketplace was so tenuous in the first place. The limiting factors on women in IT became self-perpetuating and reinforcing mechanisms when the downturn hit. For example, the lack of female mentors and networks, long seen as a disincentive to entering the field to begin with, made it more difficult for women to find new jobs in a tough market.

Making the Case

Making the Case

Specific evidence to support this theory is hard to find. A 30-year-old report on the broader economy, conducted by the United States Commission on Civil Rights and titled "Last Hired, First Fired," showed economic downturns can have a disproportionate effect on the employment of women and minorities. An essay called "When We are Needed," published in 2005 by technologist and author Shelley Powers at her Burningbird blog burningbird.net, traces the "last hired, first fired" meme to the reality confronting women and minorities after World War II. Powers notes the hunger for talent helped bring women into IT during the boom years. "Then 2000 happened, and an industry based more on wishful thinking than sound economics smashed to the ground with a resounding thud that was reminiscent of the Depression, but with fewer soup kitchens."

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, advances a similar theory: "The decline has to do with the particular business cycle in IT. You are comparing the peak of the boom with a few years after the bust. In boom years, employers are much more open in terms of who they are interested in hiring. Prejudices may fall down. They also may be more wiling to make jobs more attractive to people, in terms of work schedule, accommodating issues outside of work, flexibility. A lot of that stuff went away as soon as the labor market got soft again, particularly in IT, because the swing was so great from big undersupply to oversupply." A future boom, he says, will likely see a return to higher rates of female IT employment, although that won't address the underlying issues.

Women, especially women with families, may face extra obstacles. "My guess is you would see a bigger impact on the retaining side, in terms of people bailing out," Cappelli says. "The turnover in IT is very high, so all you need is a relatively small differential per year in the gender turnover, and you get a big effect after three to five years." Contributing factors might include issues such as the quality of the work experience, with "work/life balance issues getting better in the boom and worse later."

Culture, mentoring and networking may also be in play. Recruiters don't sell women very well on the field, Eileen Trauth, professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology, writes in a paper. A Catalyst study showed that women have limited access to informal networks in technology jobs and face gender-based stereotypes and a lack of role models. "The decline shows a vicious cycle," says Catalyst associate Kate Egan. "If there are not a lot of women at the top, then there won't be growth at lower levels. If the barriers aren't broken, then women have to carve out paths themselves, and progress is very slow."

A related problem, Egan says, is that diversity programs that might help women in IT are often reduced or eliminated in tough times.

The ramifications can be serious. "You have to strategically and objectively identify talent," says Marguerete Luter, a Unisys executive who serves as president of Women in Technology, a not-for-profit group that stresses professional development and networking. "If you don't, and you don't recognize the demands of families and personal responsibilities, then women opt out and sometimes don't come back to IT. When women realize they have other options, they opt out."

Sue Polinsky, president of a Greensboro, N.C., design and network architecture firm called TechTriad, says returning to IT after being out of work or taking time off to have a baby can be tougher than coming back to other fields because the pace of change in technology makes it harder to stay current.

And, technology jobs themselves have changed in the last several years. "Overall, I think IT is not as attractive" as it once was, says Kelly Heitmann, CIO at KVH Industries, a manufacturer of mobile communications components in Middletown, R.I.. "IT is becoming more precarious day after day we are moving away from comfortable corporate IT positions into outsourced models. If a female works for someone who does outsourcing, she is facing travel, something can make a balanced lifestyle difficult to achieve."

Adds Mary Leden, a 30-year-old programmer who recently left Oracle for school-photo specialist Lifetouch: "I think the market changed dramatically after the dot-com bust. The macho culture has grown. People are hungrier and will work long hours for less money. That may be harder for women who are parents." Shelley Powers points to web culture, saying, "The issues have become more obvious in recent years, because in webblogging we talk about it all the time. Blogs are telling smart women not to come into the field."

Why It Matters

A question that may seem politically incorrect: is the decline cause for concern? Charlene Li, an analyst at IT advisor Forrester answers: "If the numbers are going down, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Women have choices." Powers agrees. "Women may be making rational decisions," she says, "given the unpleasantness of the job." But such acknowledgements don't make the situation just or equitable or do much for women who want careers in IT.

And on a macro scale, the problems are inescapable. "We will be competing with countries that produce more workers and buyers than we can, and they are also producing more engineers," says Ted Childs, a corporate diversity coach who retired as head of IBM's industry-leading diversity program. "We need the talent of women and minorities. If technology prowess is a basis for dominance, we're about to lose dominance."

Leaving IT

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