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

Wednesday Nov 22nd 2006 by James Maguire
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Women in IT are, to say the least, a minority. Is there a woman in your data center?

Being a woman in IT has had its strange moments, notes Amy Niersbach. While it makes no difference in her current job, as platform architect for the city of Chicago, not all her positions have been so gender-blind.

“Prior to working for the city of Chicago, I really struggled with some of the managers,” she tells Datamation. “It was just amazing.”

On one occasion, “I was on maternity leave, and they hired a gentleman to fill in. And when I returned to work, this guy would not voluntarily remove his belongings from my desk.

Tech Quotes
“That’s what it was like: this is a man’s world, and you’re in it.”

~Amy Niersbach, IT manager

“And there were days where [male colleagues] went golfing, and I was left to hold down the fort,” she recalls.

“That’s what it was like: this is a man’s world, and you’re in it.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that there are comparatively few women in IT departments. While other business professions have come closer to parity, IT remains overwhelmingly male. Forrester research reports that only 9 percent of IT professionals are women.

And even that figure seems high. “I’ve attended conferences, and whether there are 5,000 people, or 500, it seems like there’s a small percentage,” of women, Niersbach says.

She remembers being part of a tiny number of women earning a degree in electrical engineering at DeVry University. Out of some 200 students, “Probably five [women] started out, and maybe two or three graduated.” At the graduation ceremony, “When the women went up on stage, everyone started clapping – we just kind of stood out.”

To this day, she still gets an occasional double take when people realize she oversees an IT organization that runs hundreds of servers. “People will come to meetings and they’ll think you don’t understand what you’re talking about,” she says.

In contrast, Joanne Correia, a leading software analyst and managing vice president of Gartner, says that in her experience, gender plays virtually no role in IT. For example, “I have a team of men and women. And some people say women are better project managers, men are more serial focused, but I don’t find that in my team.”

However, she has experienced dramatic bias in overseas situations, particularly in the Middle East. “I’ve been at conferences where culturally women were not accepted into business,” she says. “I’ve literally had people stand there and say, 'I can’t talk to you, you’re a woman, I have to wait for a man.’ And I was like, ‘fine, stand there for three hours.’”

Diverse Workforce?

However low the current percentage of women in IT, look for future increases, says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.

“There are more women in the math and sciences now, and that’s typically where a lot of IT professionals come from,” she tells Datamation. Also driving new hiring trends: “There are companies out there that are looking for more diversification, so they’re proactively looking for more diversification [in hiring].”

In fact, “I’m seeing more women come into the field than I did even three, four, five years ago,” she says.

Another factor possibly drawing more women into the data center: the public perception of IT. Technology is more central to everyone’s lives than ever before. Many people – both techies and non-techies – are connected constantly. Many people carry an array of electronic portables with them.

“When I was in school I was considered to be pretty darn technical because I could use a Brother Word Processor,” Lee says. “Today, my four-year-old nephew knows more about computers than I did when I was 18 years old.”

In short, with the mainstream acceptance of technology, IT seems to be a more natural career choice for many people – including women.

Next page: Motherhood and Pay Levels

A Balanced Life

For whatever reason, there are more women in certain niches of IT than in others.

“I’m finding there are more women in applications development,” Niersbach says. “We have some consultants, and out of 10 consultants we probably have four women in applications development.”

On the other hand, “I don’t see women in the DBA area at all. We have probably six DBAs, we have one woman.” Also, “My employer subcontracts some of our IT positions and we rarely see women working in the role of network or systems engineers.”

However, “I see a lot of women going into technical project management, and they’re making pretty big bucks doing project implementation,” she says. This niche is more conceptual than other IT specialties, yet still requires plenty of nitty-gritty tech know-how.

Whatever the niche, for a woman who’s also a mother the devouring pace of a career in technology can be a detriment.

“I could probably make $50,000 more somewhere else,” Niersbach says. “But for me, it’s not necessarily about the money right now.” There are larger considerations, she says.

“There’s a trade-off if you have a family, which I do. I can work 45 hours here, where other companies want you to work 60 hours.” In particular, “A lot of these new IT or dotcom companies don’t want you taking off to go to the dentist ever. Everything is just a major deal.” Balancing a family and an ever-changing technical platform can require some flexibility from an employer.

Pay Levels

“The big issue that is still out there is pay difference,” says Robert Half’s Lee. “What I hear most of all from women in IT is that, ‘Hey, I’ve arrived, but I’m not making as much money.’”

Reinforcing that sentiment is a recent Computerworld survey finding that male IT directors earn an average of $114, 045, while a woman in an equivalent position brings in $109,466. Across all IT positions, men earn an average of 12% more than women, according to the survey.

There may be some reasons for this difference other than bias. Some women – and Amy Niersbach is an example – may be opting for career tracks that allow them to balance motherhood and career, hence limiting their maximum earning power. Still, the pay gap is a sizable one, and is clearly an issue the industry needs to address.

Forrester research reports that one of the 10 key forces that will change the working world is an expanding number of female workers. Will IT keep up?

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