Understanding A Woman's Path To IT

Can non-traditional education and short-term training prepare more women for entry-level IT jobs?

Also See:
Stopping The Female Brain Drain
Women In IT Group

By Ellen Pearlman

Strategic Thinkers:
Kathryn Bartol, William Aspray, Ian Williamson, Gosia Langa, Karen Chapple (authors of three chapters in the section titled "Pathways into the Workforce")
Bartol is a Robert H. Smith Professor of Management and Organizations at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland; Aspray is the Bill and Lewis Suit Professor of Information Technologies in the School of Information at the University of Texas; Williamson is an associate professor of management at the Melbourne Business School, Australia; Langa is an instructor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland; and Chapple is an assistant professor of sociology at Western Washington University.
Research focus: Non-traditional education and short-term training can prepare more women for entry-level IT jobs. Making them feel welcome when they get there can go a long way toward retaining them.
Woman and Information Technology: Research on Underrepresentation, edited by J. McGrath Cohoon and William Aspray, published by The MIT Press, September 2008.

There is plenty of research into why girls don't pursue careers in IT and why women drop out of IT careers. There are also plenty of research gaps into what happens once women leave academic training and insufficient understanding about the reasons for the continued decline of women in technology. A new book-Woman and Information Technology-pulls together a great array of research and seeks to draw conclusions on three topics: the relationship between gender and IT among preteens and adolescents; the role of gender in postsecondary education; and the pathways that women take into IT careers.

I have chosen to focus on the last topic since it relates to what happens to women as they enter the workforce and try to succeed in it. But first a few sobering statistics: In 2001, women received over 57% of the bachelor's degrees conferred in the U.S. across all fields, but at the same time women were granted less than 28% of the bachelor's degrees in computer-related disciplines. And while women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, they comprise 29% of the workers in the U.S. IT job market.

Kathryn Bartol and William Aspray undertook the task of reviewing the available research on why women are underrepresented in IT work. They believe this is important to understand if employers are to meet their IT workforce needs in the future. One of their surprising observations was the majority of IT jobs are not filled by graduates with bachelor's degrees in IT majors. This was especially true for women entering the IT job market. The traditional educational pipeline into IT careers accounted for only 45,000 of the 200,000 new IT jobs created in the U.S. in 1996, the year it was studied. Where then did the rest of the IT workers come from?

Some moved into the IT job market with degrees in related studies such as mathematics, business and management, engineering and science. Others took computer courses, but did not major in the field. And others learned on the job or attended nontraditional colleges (such as Strayer University or the University of Phoenix) or participated in training programs. Other research reinforced the notion that women often enter IT via nontraditional pathways and start their careers in nontechnical jobs. The most common entry point for women without extensive education or training is through help-desk support positions or as a personal computer technician. The authors say that more research into the value of these different types of IT education is needed, especially as it relates to women and IT careers. Shutting women out of IT career opportunities because they didn't graduate from the traditional echelons of IT learning is shortsighted.

Some of the reasons that women do not choose IT careers are fairly well-known: the work is perceived to be highly technical with little social relevance; they have a poor understanding of their various IT career options; they believe that the IT work environment is male-dominated, isolating and not welcome to women; and the 24/7 work environment leaves too little time for family. One research study (Australian WinIT) concluded "more women would likely be attracted to the IT field if they understood more clearly the range of skills, aptitudes, and career paths that are possible."

But it's not just the perception of IT as a career that's the problem. In general, the research showed that women are less self-confident about their technical abilities. Studies with kids in middle and high school found that girls are more likely to consider themselves "not the type to do well" with computers. Research shows this lack of confidence continues into college: One study showed that 50% to 70% of women surveyed believed that the course work for an IT career was too hard.

Next: Overcoming Lack Of Confidence

{mospagebreak title=Overcoming Lack Of Confidence}

Overcoming Lack Of Confidence

To conquer a lack of confidence, girls and women benefit from the support of mentors and role models as they consider their career options and afterward when they enter their chosen field. If female students do not see women in professional positions in IT, they are less likely to pursue this as an option for themselves. And with women occupying less than 11% of high-level managerial positions within the IT industry, this makes it more difficult for girls to view IT as a viable career.

Kathryn Bartol teamed with two other academics (Ian Williamson and Gosia Langa) to look at whether women in IT have positive or negative feelings about their profession and what role that may play in their career longevity. Their research found that female IT students, preparing to enter the workforce, reported lower professional commitment than their male counterparts. Their research also found that women entering the IT profession, who may be facing relatively hostile climates, did better if they perceived that their contributions were valued and their welfare mattered to their employers. But for women to increase their commitment to their profession, they also had to get satisfaction from their jobs. More research on whether women are gaining entry into the most desirable and rewarding IT jobs would be useful in finding ways to improve women's desire to stay in the profession.

In Karen Chapple's chapter on low-income women, she examined how these women are gaining access to IT jobs. In particular, they were benefiting from short-term job training programs at nonprofit organizations, such as Per Scholas in the South Bronx, Training Inc. in Newark, N.J., and Bay Video Coalition and Street Tech in San Francisco.

These programs helped many women get their foot in the door in IT, she said, because of the down skilling of IT occupations, largely due to the Web, and the IT training programs' focus on soft skills. Many entry-level jobs in the IT sector require skills, abilities and traits that pertain to personality, attitude and behavior rather than formal or technical knowledge. This is especially true since software-specific skills become obsolete quickly and because of the emphasis on project-based work, where teamwork skills are valued. However, in order to advance beyond entry-level work, research showed that further education was required. Still, supporting non-traditional pathways into IT, Chapple said, "may be one way to increase the representation of women in IT professions."

Also of interest:
Becoming Leaders: A Practical Handbook for Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology by F. Mary Williams and Carolyn J. Emerson, published by American Society of Civil Engineers, ASME Press, and Society of Women Engineers, April 2008. Working smart and making the right choices.

Women, Gender, and Technology edited by Mary Frank Fox, Deborah G. Johnson, and Sue V. Rosser, published by University of Illinois Press, August 2006. Essays on gender and technology.

Website: MentorNet, a nonprofit e-mentoring network that seeks to affect the retention and success of women and others underrepresented groups in engineering, science and mathematics fields. In addition, the MentorNet Community provides opportunities to connect with others from around the world who are interested in diversifying engineering and science.

CIOZone Question: How many women are in IT management at your company?

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