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Women in IT: How deep is the bench?

IT has come a long way in its attitudes toward women, but there's still a long way to go.
  • (Computerworld (US))
  • 19 November, 2012 11:20

Ursula Burns at Xerox. Ellen Kullman at DuPont. Ginni Rometty at IBM. And most famously, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, with a baby on board and a Twitterstream in tow.

Each time a female engineer takes the helm at a prominent technology company, the industry breathes a sigh of relief and pats itself on the back. See? Self-proclaimed "girl geeks" like Mayer really can survive and thrive in IT and research.

Add to that the fact that more female CIOs than ever are leading the tech charge at Fortune 500 companies like Exxon Mobil, Boeing, Dell, Walmart, Bank of America, Xerox and GE, and it's easy to conclude that change really has come to one of the last male-dominated boxes on the corporate org chart.

Or maybe not. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 women made up 57% of the country's professional workforce but held just 25% of the jobs in professional computing occupations. And those Fortune 500 female CIOs? They still account for just 12% of the total, according to data from Boardroom Insider.

The persistently lopsided male-to-female ratios distress pioneering women like Nora Denzel, a former senior vice president at Intuit and Hewlett-Packard who graduated with a B.S. in computer science in 1984.

At the time, Denzel had no idea that the charge she was leading would wither behind her. "In the early '80s, the whole space thing was going on, PCs had just come out, the occupational projections were saying there was going to be such a shortage of talent," she recounts. "I wouldn't go as far as saying computer science was sexy, but there was that sense that the sky was the limit."

Should corporations care if their IT workforce lacks women? Beyond check-the-box feel-goodism, is there any ROI in dedicating resources to cultivate, recruit, mentor and promote women in technical roles?

Absolutely, says Sophie Vandebroek, CTO at Xerox, which also has a female CEO and a female CIO. Female-friendly policies give an organization access to the full range of talent available in the marketplace. "It's hard enough finding people who meet our standards -- exceptional Ph.D.s and engineers, especially U.S. citizens," she says. "Without a diverse organization, we're not going to be able to attract the best person for the job."

In addition to her CTO role, Vandebroek is president of the Xerox Innovation Group, which oversees Xerox's research centers in Europe, Asia, Canada and the U.S., including the storied Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

"We have no problem hiring excellent people at PARC," she says with a laugh, "but how do we convince talented engineers to move to our Rochester, N.Y., facility?" Xerox's diversity initiatives are a key recruiting tool. "Nobody wants to be the only woman, or the only Hispanic, or young person, or the one gay person. They want to see others who look and act like them in the workplace."

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Why hire women in IT? Computerworld editor Tracy Mayor interviews Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek about the ROI of a diverse workforce and its benefits to the bottom line.

Beyond making it easier to recruit other women, adding women to engineering and design teams makes those teams better able to address the needs of Xerox's customer base, which worldwide includes more women than men. Just one example: Women are more likely to be users of the company's multifunction office devices, says Vandebroek.

Overall, heterogeneous workgroups are more innovative, creative and productive than "just a bunch of people all thinking the same way" -- a crucial concern for organizations like Xerox, where innovation has a direct impact on the bottom line, says Vandebroek.

Because her company has for many years sponsored large and active caucuses that support women at Xerox, as well as subgroups for technical women and women of color, among other minorities, Vandebroek feels she does have a deep bench from which to promote future female talent. (For other likely candidates, see the companies with the highest percentages of women on Computerworld's 2012 list of 100 Best Places To Work in IT.)

I just led a panel on how to become a developer. If more than five people in the room were women, I'd be surprised. Debbie Madden, Cyrus Innovation

But that's not the case at every organisation, she says -- and that's an assessment shared by a number of young, midcareer and executive-level tech women. Their general takeaway: IT has come a long way in its attitudes toward women, but there's still a long way to go.

Midcareer retention

As someone who has been recruiting developers and other tech employees in the New York area for the past 17 years, Debbie Madden counts herself among the ranks of senior technical women who are dismayed by the glacial pace of change.

"I just led a panel on how to become a developer. There were 150 people in the room, and if more than five of them were women, I'd be surprised," says Madden, executive vice president at software developer Cyrus Innovation. "When I was majoring in engineering, there was a lot of hope that women were finally starting to take on more of these STEM degrees. People were very hopeful, but I'm not seeing that now."

Madden worries that women might be taking themselves out of the mix early on in the game over work-life concerns. "One big problem is retention," she says. "Many women that I know, even when they're in their 20s, they choose careers that are going to allow them to have children. But when you're a developer working on a project, you need to be there five long days a week."

The up-all-night "brogrammer" culture at some startups doesn't help, she says. "No one's intentionally preventing female engineers from working at those companies; it's just an overall culture that's not appealing to a lot of women."

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Career Development

Footsteps to follow

Having come up through the ranks when IT was not particularly tuned in to family concerns, Marina Lubinsky, senior vice president and CIO at hotelier Oakwood Worldwide, likes to keep an eye out for employees who may be in need of support with work-life challenges. Her concern stems directly from her own experiences in the early 1990s.

"I was with Arthur Andersen when I started a family. At that time, you were either on or off the track." -- Marina Lubinsky, Oakwood Worldwide

"I was in Europe with Arthur Andersen, which is now Accenture, when I started a family -- twin boys," Lubinsky relates. "At that time, you were either on the track or off the track. The company was closed off on what to do with me, and I was pretty much closed off to any alternatives as well."

Lubinsky left, and worked at Disney and AIG before landing at Oakwood, where in 2009, she became the first female on its executive committee. "Now it's 50-50," she says. "Three of us are women."

As for the women in her organization, Lubinsky says, "We have conversations: 'How did you get where you are?' 'What struggles did you go through?' For 20 years now, I've juggled. I've been through it all."

Several years ago, when Joanna Tang, a systems architect at Oakwood, was thinking of resigning to spend more time with her two young children, Lubinsky offered her the opportunity to work from home.

"After I had my second child, I was feeling the need to be at home more," says Tang. "Marina was very supportive. She encouraged me to stay, and gave me the option to choose my time in the office." Having a manager who'd been through the same dilemmas helped. "I did think, well, if it worked out for [Lubinsky], it can work out for me," she says.

- Tracy Mayor

Jennifer Klopotoski, a Windows systems administrator team lead, has had few female role models in her education and career, but she feels well supported by her company, Ebsco Publishing, an Ipswich, Mass., supplier of databases and e-books.

In a computer science class at Boston's Northeastern University, she recalls being the only woman in a class of 30. "But I wasn't intimidated by that," she says. "I used it to my advantage to build on my strengths."

Klopotoski is one of three females in a 35-member department, and has no women directly up the ladder from her. But early on, she had a good male mentor who recognized her ambition. "I am definitely in a distinct minority, but I'm comfortable with that; it's part of my personality," she says. "I feel the doors are open to me at Ebsco. If you want to get ahead, you'll get there eventually."

It's difficult [having kids] in the tech field -- you can't just drop what you're doing at 3 o'clock if something is broken. Jennifer Klopotoski, Ebsco Publishing

Her current roadblock is the work-life balance that many parents with young children struggle with. Klopotoski and her husband, a network manager at a different company, can sometimes find themselves debating over whose network crisis is more important as they figure out which parent can leave work to pick up their two kids, ages 4 and 18 months. "It's difficult in the tech field -- you can't just drop what you're doing at 3 o'clock if something is broken."

It's not lost on her that Yahoo's Mayer made it to the top before starting a family. "Having kids and now wanting to advance, it's a reverse kind of climb," Klopotoski acknowledges. "Am I going to be able to attain what I want? Maybe, but it's going to take five or 10 years."

Do shifting skill sets favor women?

Multiple nonprofits have sprung up, many sponsored by tech corporations, to expose high school girls to programming, app development and more. The list includes The Technovation Challenge sponsored by nonprofit Iridescent, DigiGirlz classes from Microsoft, and Girls Who Code, backed by Google, eBay, General Electric and Twitter. The hope is that these efforts will result in more women studying science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM fields -- in college and graduate school.

In the meantime, there are indications that the shifting nature of high-tech employment may be working in favor of women.

As Denzel, who first made her mark in storage and later in the burgeoning field of big data, notes wryly, "The closer you are to the processor, the more male-dominated this already male-dominated field becomes."

In contrast, the industry shift away from nuts and bolts and toward hybrid skill sets -- including higher-level analytics, process and project management, and user-centric social and mobile computing -- could open up opportunities for women to move laterally into tech departments from other specialties.

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Education

Guy-centric classrooms

A look at the supply chain for IT professionals -- high schools, colleges, universities and graduate schools -- suggests that the gap between top-placed female IT professionals and those coming up the ranks isn't likely to close anytime soon.

That's according to an analysis of educational data from various sources by The National Center for Women & Information Technology. Among other things, the group found that, in 2011, a majority (56%) of the students who took Advanced Placement tests were female, as were 46% of those who took the AP calculus test, but women accounted for just 19% of those who took the AP computer science exam.

Those ratios hold true in college: 57% of students earning an undergraduate degree in 2010 were women, but women made up only 18% of those majoring in computer and information sciences. That's not a one-year blip: The NCWIT found that there was a 79% drop in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science between 2000 and 2011.

"If we could say to girls, 'You're going to try this out,' they might discover they really love programming." -- Sara Edwards, Asante Health System

Sara Edwards, an applications analyst at Asante Health System in Medford, Ore., who initially crossed over to IT via a clerical job in healthcare, believes the solution lies in changing how computer science is presented to female students in high school and college.

At her high school, only students who excelled in math, specifically calculus, were encouraged to sign up for the one programming class, which was an elective. "Computer science programs -- all STEM classes, I think -- need to be mandatory, not electives. If we could say to girls, 'You're going to try this out,' and get good teachers that make it fun for them, they might discover they really love programming," Edwards says. "You don't know what you're going to love until you do it."

Edwards is currently a senior pursuing a bachelor's degree in computer information science at Southern Oregon University. She says there are "never more than four or five" women in the classroom. What female professors she does have tend to be on the business side of the discipline; with one exception, the instructors who teach programming are all male. "They're not anti-female, they're very nice, and they'll help you if you need it," Edwards says. "But I do see a need in computer science for more women. We could use some mentoring."

- Tracy Mayor

That's how it worked for Kathleen Healy-Collier, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in healthcare and is preparing the oral defense of her Ph.D. thesis in health administration at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Healy-Collier is the administrative director -- essentially, the IT director -- at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, which is part of a five-hospital coalition in Memphis. She says that she sees more and more women in healthcare making moves like hers.

"I've been in the industry for 18 years, and when I started out, it was totally male-dominated," says Healy-Collier. "If you go back even further, 30 years, healthcare systems were all 'man's work': in the back room, with paper-based records." The only integrated data systems tended to be financial or production tools, which appealed to a narrow audience. It's no surprise the CIO or IT director role went to a traditional IS or MIS graduate, most often a male.

I've been in the [healthcare] industry for 18 years, and when I started out, it was totally male-dominated. Kathleen Healy-Collier, Le Bonheur Children's Hospital

Now, healthcare is undergoing a massive shift, and healthcare IT systems are changing as well. "Organizations discovered that you can't just put IT on top of medicine; you need an understanding of the underlying critical workflow," Healy-Collier says. More often than not, the people with that clinical background are females.

"Administrators, executives, doctors and nurses -- they are able to connect the dots for more technical people," says Healy-Collier. And they enjoy the work and are drawn to it in the way that wouldn't be true with a back-office IT function, she says. "Clinicians tend to be the ones who understand those systems best but also to be the ones genuinely interested in that kind of interactivity and connectivity."

Xerox's Zahra Langford is one tech employee who enthusiastically embraces the concept of hybrid skill sets. Praised by Vandebroek (her boss's boss) as "an amazing, amazing woman," Langford started out as a theater major and then became interested in set design, which led her to Web design. She did OK for herself freelancing in Silicon Valley until the tech crash of 2002.

At that point, she went back to school "to try and get technical credentials for what I was kind of doing already," she says. She earned an MSI in human-computer interaction from the University of Michigan in 2005 and went to work for Xerox, where she had interned. An interaction designer, she is in her third post at Xerox.

One thing caucus groups do provide is a cross-company network. If you want to be a VP, you need exposure to different parts of the organization. Zahra Langford, Xerox

African-American and openly gay, Langford is a minority within a minority within a minority who on the face of it might seem an odd fit on Xerox's Rochester, N.Y., campus. But the company's range of affinity groups have made her and her partner feel welcome, she says -- and they've helped her develop professionally.

"One thing the caucus groups do provide is a cross-company network," Langford explains. "If you want to be a VP, you need exposure to different parts of the organization, and Xerox is so large, if you just hang out in your own department, you're not going to move forward in a constructive way."

Mentoring from women at the executive level -- Vandebroek, in particular -- makes a difference as well, Langford says. "I had access to Sophie even as an intern. She was very involved in connecting with people and asking them to consider Xerox for the long term. She helped me realize this place is pretty special."

Glass ceiling or sticky floor?

Tina Rourk, CIO of Wyndham Vacation Ownership, oversees about 300 employees and estimates that about 30% of her staff, including two of her four direct reports, are women. Rourk sees strong opportunity for the women, particularly in hospitality, long a female-friendly field.

But at the same time, she shies away from putting too much emphasis on gender, noting that her first priority is always to hire the best candidate for a position. Rourk says that worked for her coming up in the field and she would hope it works for the women coming behind her.

"I knew IT was male-dominated from the outset. That didn't change the decisions that I made," Rourk says. "You have to build relationships -- that's my responsibility, whether it's a male or female colleague."

If anything, Rourk is concerned that women working in the male-dominated environment of IT might unintentionally be backing off when they should be pushing ahead. "Is it the glass ceiling or the sticky floor that's the problem?" she asks rhetorically. "You need to make sure others know what you want; you need to raise your hand for further opportunities. I had to learn to do that."

I knew IT was male-dominated from the outset. That didn't change the decisions that I made. Tina Rourk, Wyndham Vacation Ownership

In the end, that's the message that may resonate most deeply with the newest generation of women in high tech, people like 29-year-old Laura Beth Denker, a senior software engineer who has been in the minority ever since her days at the Rochester Institute of Technology -- but who seemingly pays it no nevermind.

True, Denker works at Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, which skews heavily female and sponsors hacker grants for women interested in programming. But she politely turns her nose up at talk of soft skills or future-forward specialties like communication or business analytics. She is pure programmer and proud of it: Her LinkedIn skill set for Etsy consists of a string of nouns like Apache, Chef, Cobbler, Ganglia, Gearman, Graphite, LDAP, Nagios, PEAR, PECL, Postfix, Racktables, RPM and Yum.

Denker also shrugs off any suggestion that she is a next-gen superstar -- she insists her previous employer, Google, plucked her resume out of a pile from Monster.com.

I wouldn't want anyone looking at me as a female engineer, because I'm an engineer, period. Laura Beth Denker, Etsy

She has studied and worked in male-dominated organizations her whole life -- she estimates her current workgroup's male-to-female ratio is 8-to-1 -- but when asked about future opportunities, she turns the question on its ear.

"It's not really, 'Can I get a job at this company?' -- it's 'Why would I want to work there?' " she explains. "You have to think about yourself and go where you feel comfortable. If people want to be brogrammers or whatever, fine, but they're missing out on more than half the universe."

Despite the persistent lack of gender parity in IT, younger women have managed to absorb a kind of post-gender mindset that anticipates the tech future before it happens.

"I wouldn't want anyone looking at me as a female engineer, because I'm an engineer, period," says Denker. "I've never had a manager, man or woman, who's looked at me as just a female, which is a good thing. My work speaks for me, so look at my work."

Research assistance by Mari Keefe and Sharon Machlis.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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