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.

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