Are There Too Many Women in IT?

Tuesday May 13th 2008 by Mike Elgan
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The various efforts to boost the number of women in IT are well intentioned but doomed to failure.

According to Gartner, the percentage of women in IT is low and shrinking, dropping from 42 percent in 1996 to 32.4 percent in 2004 worldwide. In some countries, including in the United States, it’s below 30 percent.

But those figures tell only part of the story: Fewer women than men choose IT-related majors in college. Of those who do, a larger percentage of them drop out or change their major. Women who enter the IT profession are more likely than men to quit or change careers. In the top IT management positions, women are extraordinarily rare. The higher up the IT food chain you go, the fewer women you’ll find.

This conspicuous gender imbalance is caused by a long list of problems, according to advocates of women in IT, including a lack of female role models, a pervasive stereotype of IT professionals as unfashionable “nerdy men,” and workplace sexism.

Millions of dollars are being spent by non-profit organizations and universities to understand what causes low numbers of women in IT and campaigners are working hard to address it. I applaud their efforts, but some of these initiatives may be doing more harm than good.

The Lack of Role Models Argument

Rebecca George, chair of the Women in IT Forum, laments the lack of female IT role models, and told the Register: "If you ask a room full of 11-year olds how many of them know a female programmer, chances are no one will put their hand up. Doctors, lawyers, teachers on the other hand, there are now plenty of role models."

This is a false argument. Most 11-year-olds don’t know a male programmer, either. Doctors and teachers, which children have personal acquaintance with, are role-model friendly professions. More importantly, people generally choose IT not for their desire to emulate someone, but out of a love for computer systems, networks and complex problem solving.

The worst possible thing a role model could do is to inspire someone to choose a career in IT based on wanting to be like that role model. IT is a hypercompetitive, ultra-challenging field. People who are convinced to enter IT because they want to be like a role model, rather than because they enjoy the work, are being set up for failure.

The IT-Is-Unfashionable Argument

To attract women to IT, according to George, "you need to start with 11-year olds and persuade them that the IT world isn't just about sock-and-sandal wearing geeks, and that they can be a part of it too."

People who are truly cut out for IT tend to love the work itself, not the clothing of the people who do that work. There are plenty of image-based professions out there where appearance is important – acting, modeling, technology columnist – but IT isn’t one of them.

Rather than telling girls that IT is trendy and fashionable, we should be telling both girls and boys what we really believe to be true: that focusing on being trendy and fashionable is hollow and irrelevant, and that a career in IT is interesting and challenging. The kids who dismiss that argument aren't cut out for IT and shouldn’t be persuaded to devote their careers to it.

The Sexism in the Workplace Argument

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist at the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York and founding President of the Center for Work-Life Policy, led a study to be published in the Harvard Business Review. The study found that while some 41 percent of "technical staff" (including IT, science and other technical professions) were women, more than half quit before the age of 40. The study associated this attrition primarily to workplace sexism and a "culture" that demanded long hours.

Many traditional white-collar professions (doctor, lawyer, accountant, sales, marketing, etc.) that have seen increasing percentages of women have made the transition toward gender balance despite workplace sexism.

Women endure and overcome institutionalized sexism in both IT and other fields because of their overwhelming desire to actually do the work of their respective professions. These motivated women cope with, confront and erode sexism out of their passion for the work. The declining percentages of women in IT can’t be explained away by sexism.

I also disagree with Hewlett’s assertion that long hours in IT are the result of “culture.” It’s clearly the result of the growing complexity of IT systems, the growing expectations on the part of business, the competitiveness of the industry and periodic and ruthless rounds of cost-cutting. Long hours are, for the foreseeable future, an unfortunate reality in IT, and changing workplace “culture” won’t change this stark reality.

The Affirmative Action Solution

Carnegie Mellon University instituted a form of gender affirmative action in order to attract more women. For example, they de-emphasized prior experience in programming as a criterion for acceptance. To compensate, they created freshman-level accelerated programming classes to bring the programming newbies up to speed with students with prior coding experience. The program is considered a success and a model for other universities.

But what's wrong with this picture?

The Carnegie program makes the same mistake as some other gender-balancing initiatives: It seeks to boost the percentage of women by focusing on those women who, deep down, may not be as interested in IT as the people they'll be competing against in school and in the workplace. These less interested people are likely to fail or quit at higher rates than the deeply interested and self-motivated people, regardless of gender.

Question: With all the free programming tools, information and ideas available nowadays online, what kind of person makes it to the age of 18 without ever doing any programming? Answer: Someone who’s just not that interested in programming.

Have any of those millions being thrown around to understand IT gender imbalance been spent to study the later success in IT between teens motivated to learn programming on their own compared with teens without such motivation?

I really don't know why more boys than girls choose to study IT, choose careers in IT and stay with IT once the career has started – and I confess I have no solution to offer. I'm sure stereotyping, sexism and other factors play a role. But I also believe that pressuring girls - or boys, for that matter - into careers they won't like isn't helping anyone. Dangling false motives - such as role models and the countering of stereotypes - won't help anyone, either. They've got to love the machines, the systems and the act of complex-problem solving or they're unlikely to enjoy or succeed in IT.

As in all fields, yes, we should support the elimination of sexism, unfair pay and glass-ceiling office politics. But let's not set up girls for failure by pushing them into a career they're really not that interested in.

Are there too many women in IT? Of course not. But I fear there may be too many women in IT who have been coaxed by false inducements into an unhappy career by well-intentioned people seeking gender balance.

Also see:

Omigod! There’s a Woman in the Data Center!

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