ChannelTrends: For Women in IT, Voice Matters

As a father of three, I want my daughters to have the same career and life opportunities as my son will enjoy and vice-versa. Everyone should have a chance to pursue the vocation of their choice based on their aptitude and inclinations; regardless of their skin color, gender or lineage. While they may face a variety of challenges along the way, discrimination is a hurdle no one should encounter in 2013.

Perhaps that’s a reason why during Women’s History Month, so many workplace and IT industry discussions are focused on both the success of and remaining obstacles facing gender diversity. While some of these issues may not pertain exclusively to women, such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting, many do disproportionately affect them.

Sheryl Sandberg got very vocal about this disparity recently as she took to the airwaves to discuss and promote her book, Lean In. The Facebook COO strongly recommends that women be more assertive in their careers, fighting the stereotypes that cause them to defer leadership to men, set the bar low and resolve themselves to diminished roles in their organizations. Though Sandberg is being criticized for implying that women are responsible for their own career downfalls, her overall message of empowerment should be adopted by everyone.

Sandberg suggests that rather than worrying about knocking down gender walls, women embrace their careers as aggressively as men do while creating equal partnerships with their significant others at home. Even those who don’t agree with those elements of her book should acknowledge the importance of her empowering message to female workers. While women continue to gain key management positions through determination and skill, it’s important to remember that progress can be quite cyclical. After several prominent female C-level executives left the IT industry, this appeared to be a trend that wasn’t going to soon reverse itself – but it has.

Women’s History Month is a great time to note the accomplishments of women, as their ranks among Fortune 500 IT companies continue to grow. A number of prominent new hires or promotions over the past two years have added to the resurgence, including these dynamic new CEOs:

  • Kathleen Mazzarella, Graybar

  • Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin

  • Marissa Mayer, Yahoo

  • Meg Whitman, HP

  • Ursula Burns, Xerox Corp.

  • Virginia Rometty, IBM


The IT Challenge

While the number of prominent female CEOs appears to be on the rise in the IT industry, it disguises a greater issue that could affect the diversity of ideas and skills in the channel. The proportion of female workers entering the computer technology field compared to men continues its decade-long decline. Research from the National Center for Women & Information Technology found that women made up 36 percent of IT industry employment at its high point in 1991, but that number dropped to just 25 percent by 2009.

Worse yet, that negative trend is gaining speed. The latest numbers show a significant disparity in the number of undergraduate computer science degrees going to women – just 18 percent in 2009 – compared to men. When you consider that women garnered 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees that year, it speaks to a greater long-term decline of female workers in the industry.

Members of CompTIA’s Advancing Women in Technology (AWIT) Community are working hard to reverse these trends, developing resources to educate, inspire and guide more women into the industry. In addition to encouraging greater female participation in computer science education and training, the group hopes to drive more awareness of the depth and breadth of available opportunities in today’s IT industry.

That message applies to men as well as women. The AWIT team is not as focused on the gender specificity of the materials and programs they develop as it is on the success that results from their creation. The group is open to men as well as women who have a deep seated interest in the IT industry and its need to attract greater gender diversity. AWIT lives by the slogan “A rising tide lifts all boats” in its quest to inspire youth, returning veterans and those in unfulfilling professions to pursue an IT career.

Before they could develop tools and programs to build greater female participation in the IT industry, AWIT members invested a lot of time and effort in identifying the root causes of the continuing decline. “We found a major need to change the perception some have of a career in IT,” said AWIT Community chair Sandy Ashworth. “Everyone needs to understand that it’s no longer a screwdriver-driven industry, as today’s opportunities cross many different fields and cover a large variety of interests. We need to show women and men that IT is much more diverse and advanced today, with related roles available in virtually every industry, including law firms and fashion houses.”

At CompTIA’s Annual Member Meeting last week, the AWIT Community worked on its long-list of current and future initiatives and reviewed the programs and materials that have already been introduced as a result of its efforts. The group continues to grow its membership and conversation as its supporters promote the latest activities and emphasize its significance to the industry.

In the long run, the progress of women in IT may come down to two simple words: voice matters. “I agree with some of what Sheryl Sandberg says, including her suggestion that it’s the women who push themselves who get promoted,” Ashworth said. “While it’s important to do a great job, if you sit quietly and expect to be noticed, you never will.”

Brian Sherman is founder of Tech Success Communications, specializing in editorial content and consulting for the IT channel. His previous roles include chief editor at Business Solutions magazine and senior director of industry alliances with Autotask. Contact Brian at Bsherman@techsuccesscommunications.com.
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