No Girls Allowed

Women IT leaders in education face distinct challenges, but a group in Boston shares ideas and advice to improve work performance and job satisfaction.

Women IT leaders can feel isolated, so one group in Boston is banding together for professional networking.

Melissa Solomon

Every month or so, it’s girls’ night out in Boston. It’s not female coeds who are hitting the town, but rather five women who lead IT at local universities.

As female leaders in a male-dominated industry, these women can feel isolated. Recently, while giving a presentation at an IT conference, one member of the girls’-night-out group was the only woman in the room.

owever, for the last four years, these women, along with their invited guests, have been part of a club where they brainstorm ideas, give each other advice and lend support. In other words, they’re alone together.

“It’s the ‘I’m not in this by myself’ feeling,” explains Joanne Kossuth, CIO and associate vice president for development at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. “These days, there are probably more of us around to mentor people.”

That may be the perception, but it’s not the reality. Women made up 41 percent of the U.S. IT workforce in 1996 but only 32.4 percent in 2004, according to the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va.

A 2005 survey by CIO Insight magazine found that women hold only 9 percent of the high-level IT spots in organizations. Those figures are slightly better in higher education, but they’re still drastically low.

“The news is pretty bleak,” says Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), which is based at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “The pipeline is narrowing with respect to women’s participation.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

Any number of factors can contribute to the lack of women in IT. The 24 x 7 nature of IT can be a turnoff for women who seek more of a work/life balance. The perception of IT jobs going offshore also can be a barrier to entry, although the U.S. Department of Labor projects that the number of information technology jobs will increase by nearly 1. 5 million between 2004 and 2014. (See chart on page 29.)

But the most likely deterrent to women entering IT is the image problem.

The IT stereotype is the nerdy guy with poor social skills, explains Allan Fisher, co-author of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, and co-founder and CEO of iCarnegie, an educational affiliate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The book is based on a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon from 1995 to 2000 that explored why so few women earn computer science degrees. That geeky image, he says, turns off girls in middle school and high school, the early stages of the computer science pipeline.

“There’s this culture in IT that in my mind works against diversity in gender and background,” says Olin’s Kossuth. “I think technology’s still a fairly intimidating field for most women.”

That shouldn’t be the case, says NCWIT’s Sanders. “If you think IT is not a field for a woman, you are wrong,” she insists. “I believe this profession is wildly creative, wildly fun.”

GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING

As one of 12 children (six boys and six girls), Amelia (Mely) Tynan had no shortage of playmates — or role models. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a mathematician. “I grew up in a family where the rules were the same for girls and boys,” she explains.

Tynan started out teaching psychology in the Philippines, where she was raised. She used computers for her research, but viewed technology as a tool. In the 1980s, she moved to the University of Dayton, and her boss, who wanted a faculty member with knowledge of IT, tapped her for a programmer/analyst job. A few decades later, she’s in her third IT chief post as CIO and vice president for IT at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

“The challenge for IT leaders is less about technology than it is about leading change,” Tynan adds. “As women, we really like to pull people together.”

“It’s the ‘leave your ego at the door and get the job done’ [approach], and I think women tend to be better at that,” adds Olin’s Kossuth.

Since most women don’t have access to the traditional men’s networking forums, “we have to create our own,” says Tufts’ Tynan. For instance, the Northeast Regional Computer Group held a recent workshop on women in technology, and Kossuth, who’s the chairwoman, was stunned by the overwhelming response from women desperate for follow-up opportunities.

BUILDING THE CLUBHOUSE

Networking groups can help keep women in the IT workforce and move them into management. These 10 steps can also help:

1. Find a mentor: Mentors can show women how an organization really works, where the levers of power are and what skills are valued, says iCarnegie’s Fisher. “The old boys’ network distributes that information a lot more freely than it is distributed to women,” he says.

Organizations such as the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, Calif., celebrate successful women in IT and bring women together for networking and mentoring.

2. Change the culture: “The culture of the high-tech industry is created by men for men,” explains Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute. Organizations say they’re committed to change, but what they do and what they say are often at odds.

For instance, IT leaders talk about flexible work schedules but reward people who work 60-plus-hour weeks. Those in leadership positions can change the culture of IT by restructuring jobs and providing exposure to those who work hard without living at the office.

Women leaders can also serve as role models. “Maintaining a balance is so very, very important,” says Tufts’ Tynan, who’s married and has a 15-year-old son. There are inconveniences but no “insurmountable obstacles” in technology work, she explains, adding that there are also conveniences: “I can work from home and not miss family life.”

3. Transform the image: Women graduate from medical school and law school at roughly the same rates as men, but women receive only about 22 percent of the computer science degrees. The lone-wolf image has a lot to do with that. “But I believe that the natural IT work environment is team-based, very creative, very humanistic,” NCWIT’s Sanders says. “You’re trying to solve people’s problems.”

4. Encourage alternate paths: Tufts’ Tynan has a psychology background, and Olin’s Kossuth got her start in retail. Tracey Leger-Hornby, assistant vice president for business redesign and former associate CIO at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., was a librarian. But all three used technology to solve problems in their early careers, and fate steered them toward IT positions.

Perry Hanson, Brandeis’ vice president for information technology and libraries, recruited Leger-Hornby, who was library director at Rivier College in Nashua, N.H., to join his team, where she ended up leading a PeopleSoft implementation. But the leap wasn’t as big as she had anticipated: Leger-Hornby had project management experience from a past job at which she built a cataloging system, she had been a department head, had a degree in higher education, and understood how universities operate and how different departments fit together.

5. Actively recruit women: When the Boston IT leaders gather for girls’ night out, they talk about positions they’re looking to fill and qualified women looking for jobs. But despite concerted efforts to recruit women, there are still areas that are primarily male, such as network jobs and help desks.

A recent survey conducted by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association in Boulder, Colo., and Washington, D.C., found that women in higher education jobs just below the senior-most IT positions didn’t want the top spots because of the pressure, time demands and political nature of the job. But these challenges affect all IT workers, not just executives, iCarnegie’s Fisher says.

6. Seek ongoing educational opportunities: In a prior job when she was a librarian at Simmons’ College, Leger-Hornby taught classes in computer use. Such educational opportunities should continue throughout women’s careers. Brown-bag lunches on technical topics and career development are easy, informal types of training.

7. Put your best foot forward: Women need to promote their strengths. Tufts’ Tynan suggests doing periodic SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analyses. “Be open to new experiences and broaden your thinking and horizons beyond IT,” she adds. “Make it a point to understand the entire university. We have a big role beyond the mechanics of technology.”

8. Get out of your comfort zone: To become a CIO, employees need to take jobs in areas they may not be familiar with so they can build their skill sets and broaden their perspectives, NCWIT’s Sanders says. For instance, while Olin’s Kossuth was working toward her masters at Fisher College in Boston, the president read Kossuth’s thesis on developing management information systems and asked her to computerize Fisher’s campus.

9. Don’t forget to shut down: Time management is critical in IT. “I think it’s hard for people to step back and take a breath and not feel that they’re missing out on something in their career,” Kossuth says. “The big trick is balancing your career and your personal life.”

10. Widen the pipeline: Changing curricula, altering admissions policies, looking for leadership skills instead of just numeric ratings and promoting role models “shifted the needle toward women” in Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department, iCarnegie’s Fisher says .At the start of his research in 1995, women earned just 7 percent of the university’s computer science degrees, but by its completion in 2000, they earned 42 percent.

Fisher’s co-author, Jane Margolis, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, addresses these issues in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Within two years, LAUSD has doubled the number of advanced placement computer science classes and tripled the number of female students taking them.

Parents also have to do their share. “I think part of what enabled me to go into this profession was that my father always made sure that whatever my brother learned, I had the opportunity to learn as well,” Olin’s Kossuth says.

Melissa Solomon is a technology writer based in Austin, Texas.

Projected Growth in IT Jobs (in Thousands of Workers):

Computer hardware engineers:
(2004) 77; (2014) 84

Computer software engineers:
(2004) 800; (2014) 1169

Computer support specialists:
(2004) 518; (2014) 638

Computer sys. analysts:
(2004) 487; (2014) 640

Database administrators:
(2004) 104; (2014) 144

Network administrators:
(2004) 278; (2014) 385

Network & data comm. analysts:
(2004) 231; (2014) 357

Computer programmers:
(2004) 455; (2014) 464

Computer & IS managers:
(2004) 280; (2014) 353

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Oct 31 2006

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