Is IT really a man's world?

Scarcity could mean golden opportunities for women who enter.

As CIO of SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, N.C., Suzanne Gordon is one of the few female IT executives in an overwhelmingly...

male field.

How overwhelming? Try 15% women in IT management overall. That's according to the most recent numbers from HR recruiting and research company Sheila Greco Associates, Amsterdam, N.Y. The company has tracked the percentage of women at the Director level and above in the Fortune 1,000 since 1998, and the number has never gotten higher than today's 15%, according to president and co-founder Sheila Greco.

"It certainly shows that women are scarce in this field," she said.

With numbers like that, it's no surprise that Gordon is frequently the only woman in a meeting -- but that hasn't stopped her from embracing IT as a great career. "There's always something new to get excited about in IT," she said. "You meet people who are passionate about their work, and the possibilities are endless."

Nonetheless, technology persists in being a field that attracts few women as a career choice, and the shunning seems to start as early as high school, said Claudia Morrell, the director of the Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "If you look at the enrollment by gender for AP tests, Computer Science A and B are the two lowest enrolled by female of any of the AP tests," she said.

That's too bad, because there are some aspects of technology that can be very attractive as a career choice for women, such as the following:

A growing field
In spite of the tech job collapse and the threat of offshore outsourcing, the prospect for a technology-related career remains bright, said Morrell. And statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor support that statement. Estimates show that high technology employment should reach 21.5 million workers by 2006. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of computer specialists alone is projected to grow by more than two-thirds, adding nearly two million jobs to the economy.

Bottom line: Projections for future growth indicate that computers, software and applications for information technology will continue to have a substantial impact on lives and employment opportunities in the United States. "The whole area of creation, development and engineering is really where the U.S. is strong, and the area where women need to be," said Morrell. "Nobody is competing with us there."

Greco also suggests that women can best arm themselves against any possible technology career shortfalls by building up a portfolio of technology and business skills. "It's important that people become business and IT proficient, not just purely IT focused," she said. "If offered an opportunity in operations, be it for a year or six months, try to take advantage because it will only make you stronger in this new world."

Computing-based careers offer a good deal of flexibility, something that women juggling work and life issues find a tremendous boon. Telecommuting or squeezing work in around family life is a distinct possibility for software engineers and analysts. "Out of all the math/science professions, anything that has to do with software lends itself to more flexibility because it opens up for the commuting situation," said Gloria Montana, director of the virtual development center at The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, Palo Alto, Calif. "Professions around high tech lend themselves to working different schedules or different locations remotely."

And although programming has the reputation of a career that involves sleep deprivation and enormous workloads, the reality can be quite different, said Morrell. "Contrary to what a lot of people think, you can find the IT job you want. There are plenty of jobs with very regular working hours that can meet women's schedules and needs."

Montana also thinks that computer professionals learn flexibility of a different sort by acquiring a set of skills that can be used across a wide range of possible jobs. "You're really learning a fair number of skills that can be applied in many ways," she said. "Lots of people pigeonhole technology jobs into things like high tech, dot-com and gaming, but if you look at places where software is reused, it's actually a lot broader."

More room at the table
The distaff dearth in the IT field actually means that the opportunities are better for the women who do enter.

"The lack of women actually represents a good opportunity," Greco said. "We've found that the hiring authorities in IT are making a concerted effort to hire females. Because of their scarcity, they're worth their weight in gold."

Gordon finds being a female in a crowd of men a professional plus, as well. "I enjoy working with men," she said. "My strengths frequently complement theirs, and there is less head to head competition with me. I like learning from them and helping them with the soft skills."

Gordon's obvious enjoyment of her career is the key to success -- now the rub is persuading other women that technology can be fun. Gordon, for one, is doing her bit.

"My daughter used to say she didn't want to do anything technical because it was boring," said Gordon. "She worked here at SAS last summer and found out our technical folks have fun, too. Now she's reconsidering and a technical career is at least an option."

For more information:
>> Suzanne Gordon talks more about her CIO position at SAS in this interview

This was last published in May 2004

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