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Is IT really a man's world?

Scarcity could mean golden opportunities for women who enter.

As CIO of SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, N.C., Suzanne Gordon is one of the few female IT executives in an overwhelmingly male field.

How overwhelming? Try 15% women in IT management overall. That's according to the most recent numbers from HR recruiting and research company Sheila Greco Associates, Amsterdam, N.Y. The company has tracked the percentage of women at the Director level and above in the Fortune 1,000 since 1998, and the number has never gotten higher than today's 15%, according to president and co-founder Sheila Greco.

"It certainly shows that women are scarce in this field," she said.

With numbers like that, it's no surprise that Gordon is frequently the only woman in a meeting -- but that hasn't stopped her from embracing IT as a great career. "There's always something new to get excited about in IT," she said. "You meet people who are passionate about their work, and the possibilities are endless."

Nonetheless, technology persists in being a field that attracts few women as a career choice, and the shunning seems to start as early as high school, said Claudia Morrell, the director of the Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "If you look at the enrollment by gender for AP tests, Computer Science A and B are the two lowest enrolled by female of any of the AP tests," she said.

That's too bad, because there are some aspects of technology that can be very attractive as a career choice for women, such as the following:

A growing field
In spite of the tech job collapse and the threat of offshore outsourcing, the prospect for a technology-related career remains bright, said Morrell. And statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor support that statement. Estimates show that high technology employment should reach 21.5 million workers by 2006. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of computer specialists alone is projected to grow by more than two-thirds, adding nearly two million jobs to the economy.

Bottom line: Projections for future growth indicate that computers, software and applications for information technology will continue to have a substantial impact on lives and employment opportunities in the United States. "The whole area of creation, development and engineering is really where the U.S. is strong, and the area where women need to be," said Morrell. "Nobody is competing with us there."

Greco also suggests that women can best arm themselves against any possible technology career shortfalls by building up a portfolio of technology and business skills. "It's important that people become business and IT proficient, not just purely IT focused," she said. "If offered an opportunity in operations, be it for a year or six months, try to take advantage because it will only make you stronger in this new world."

Computing-based careers offer a good deal of flexibility, something that women juggling work and life issues find a tremendous boon. Telecommuting or squeezing work in around family life is a distinct possibility for software engineers and analysts. "Out of all the math/science professions, anything that has to do with software lends itself to more flexibility because it opens up for the commuting situation," said Gloria Montana, director of the virtual development center at The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, Palo Alto, Calif. "Professions around high tech lend themselves to working different schedules or different locations remotely."

And although programming has the reputation of a career that involves sleep deprivation and enormous workloads, the reality can be quite different, said Morrell. "Contrary to what a lot of people think, you can find the IT job you want. There are plenty of jobs with very regular working hours that can meet women's schedules and needs."

Montana also thinks that computer professionals learn flexibility of a different sort by acquiring a set of skills that can be used across a wide range of possible jobs. "You're really learning a fair number of skills that can be applied in many ways," she said. "Lots of people pigeonhole technology jobs into things like high tech, dot-com and gaming, but if you look at places where software is reused, it's actually a lot broader."

More room at the table
The distaff dearth in the IT field actually means that the opportunities are better for the women who do enter.

"The lack of women actually represents a good opportunity," Greco said. "We've found that the hiring authorities in IT are making a concerted effort to hire females. Because of their scarcity, they're worth their weight in gold."

Gordon finds being a female in a crowd of men a professional plus, as well. "I enjoy working with men," she said. "My strengths frequently complement theirs, and there is less head to head competition with me. I like learning from them and helping them with the soft skills."

Gordon's obvious enjoyment of her career is the key to success -- now the rub is persuading other women that technology can be fun. Gordon, for one, is doing her bit.

"My daughter used to say she didn't want to do anything technical because it was boring," said Gordon. "She worked here at SAS last summer and found out our technical folks have fun, too. Now she's reconsidering and a technical career is at least an option."

For more information:
>> Suzanne Gordon talks more about her CIO position at SAS in this interview

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I'm the only woman on my software dev team of 12 at work. I definitely feel a bit isolated at times. IT is a good field to go into, and I do wish that more women would consider entering a career in IT. 

It seems like in many cases, I think of things differently and see problems from an entirely different perspective than my male co-workers, and of course my opinions don't hold much weight when it's me versus 11 men. I have had my wins, though, when I've managed to persuade others to at least consider things from my point of view. 

We are in the process of interviewing recent grads for entry level positions, and although they're still mostly male, there are a decent number of females in the candidate pool, too.
This article is really good until it gets to it's main point: that women might have an easier time getting hired because companies are starting to look for more women.

This is dangerous in two ways. First, it feeds the idea that women that are less qualified than men are more likely to get hired just because they are women. I don't think this is true, and implying it is a disservice both to women that are hired on merit and men who are then allowed to maintain this false belief.

Second, this idea may give false hope, when it's been shown repeatedly that while male dominated fields may give lip service to hiring more women, there are known cognitive biases that prevent that from happening. Until we find a way to circumvent our natural biases by implementing better methods in the hiring process, that's just not going to happen.
I totally agree CarolBrands. Multiply these biases by every mentor and teacher a female encounters on her way to an IT career, and you see the scale of the problem is not with a few corporate leaders, but with the culture. 

Let's say it's true that females in these careers are currently out-earning their male counterparts with similar skills and enjoying working on largely male teams.That means the opportunity for women in the field will dry up in the long term as more enter the field. Compensation will level, teams will change and women motivated by this will move on to the next opportunity.  As hard as the work is, the real solution is change curriculum, university recruiting and retention, and more in the culture.