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    Gender diversity in the IT workplace is an important goal for the industry as a whole, but remains elusive. The percentage of women in IT remains relatively low at about 25 percent and has in fact declined in the past few years. This month we’ll take a look at what’s being done to encourage more women to enter and remain in IT.

    Why gender diversity matters

    Research shows that businesses are more successful when women and other underrepresented groups are included. The National Center for Women & Information Technology performed a study of 500 US-based companies and discovered that higher levels of racial and gender diversity were associated with measurable indicators of success, such as increased sales revenue, more customers, and greater market share. Further, an analysis of 20,000 tech start-ups showed that successful start-ups have twice as many women in senior positions as unsuccessful companies.

    Where we are now with gender diversity in IT

    Unfortunately, current statistics on gender diversity in IT are not encouraging. According to the Bureau of Labor, the percentage of women in computing occupations has actually been declining since 1991, when it reached a high of 36 percent. According to Joan C. Williams of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California, 37 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women in 1985, while in 2012 only 18 percent were. Further, the problem seems specific to IT — during that same time period, there was a significant increase of women working in other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Naturally, that decline in women choosing computer science majors has resulted in fewer women in the IT workplace. In 1991 women held 37 percent of all computing jobs, while today they hold only 26 percent.

    What’s being done to encourage women to enter IT

    Education in IT is key to solving what experts call “the pipeline problem.” Many women in IT credit early exposure as the greatest factor in their decision to study and work in the field, but according to the College Board, female enrollment in AP Computer Science high school classes is low at just 14 percent. Initiatives like CodeEd, Black Girls Code, Code Now, and Microsoft’s DigiGirlz have been founded to help get girls interested in coding at an early age.

    Institutional changes such as adding female instructors and changing introductory courses can be instrumental in attracting women to study computer science at the college level, as Harvey Mudd College of Claremont, California has proven. Today at Harvey Mudd, the major is more than 40 percent women, while the national average is just 18 percent.

    What’s being done to keep women in IT

    Retaining women in IT is a key part of the problem, too. In fact, Joan C. Williams writes that 41 percent of women leave private tech companies after 10 years, as opposed to 17 percent of men, due to what she calls the “brogrammer” culture. So companies should gather detailed information about gender bias that’s specific to their workplace, and take steps to counteract it. After companies have done the research, they can develop ways to counteract the problems.

    For example, Google has been very transparent about its diversity issues, noting that “being totally clear about the extent of the problem is a really important part of the solution.” Google requires that employees nominate themselves for promotions, and found that women were promoted less frequently than men. The company developed workshops with female leaders about how and when to nominate yourself – a simple step that made a big difference. The company also created women employee resource groups to help women network and support each other.

    Yelp set specific goals for diversity and instituted programs to create a more supportive work environment. After three years of effort, the company managed to increase the number of women in technical positions from 10% to 18%. Intel has funded programs to improve diversity in tech, and has gone so far as to tie executives’ compensation to their success in reaching diversity goals.

    Conclusion

    Clearly, much work remains to be done to achieve gender diversity in IT, both in attracting and retaining women to the field. Fortunately, tech companies are good at innovating and changing, which makes them well-suited to working on this problem.

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