Main image of article The Disappearing Women of IT
It’s no news flash that women are an endangered species in IT. While we make up 57 percent of the workforce at large, we only represent 25 percent of professional computing occupations -- and that number is dropping.

Where Did the Women Go?

Disappearing WomenThe National Center for Women & Information Technology’s statistical publication By the Numbers sounds alarm bells. In 1985, it says, women made up 37 percent of graduates with degrees in Computer Science. That's not exactly parity, but it's significant. By 2010, however, only 18 percent of Computer and Information Science graduates were women. At major research universities, the number was 14 percent. In particular, the last decade has seen an amazing shortfall: Between 2000 and 2011, the number of women interested in majoring in Computer Science dropped by a whopping 79 percent. Employment analysts, gender diversity experts and psychologists have theories about the fall, but so far no one has hard reasons or a solution. The rationales for the drop range from the weak -- girls don’t want to be perceived as nerds -- to the socially complex and disturbing -- the rise of a swarming misogynistic groupthink. Personally, I think the fear of nerdom is largely absurd, especially in regards to the Millennial generation. As for the misogyny, it plays out way too publicly to dismiss as inconsequential. In between these two poles, there are likely more than a few quantifiable reasons why once out of high school, girls cease to move toward careers in computing technologies. The Special Report Employers say they'd like to see more women in the industry. But if women aren't graduating with Computer Science and Information degrees and then applying for the jobs in the field, how can companies find them? By 2020 it’s estimated that there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. One hopes that more than 25 percent of them would be filled by qualified women.

How to Change the Dynamic

Catherine S. Ashcraft, Senior Research Scientist at NCWIT takes a long range approach to changing the dynamic. The Center is committed to creating support networks and campaigns to encourage and keep girls and young women engaged in IT. To that end, the organization places a lot of emphasis on creating more inclusive environments both in college classrooms and companies. “A commitment to systemic rather than piecemeal change is important,” Ashcraft says. “Starting small is great but there needs to be a commitment to eventually change company-wide systems and policies. We like to say that it’s a marathon not a sprint.” NCWIT encourages educators at all levels to make computing curricula more relevant and engaging, and works with companies to help technical managers develop more inclusive teams while fostering leadership support and accountability metrics to ensure that they succeed. Observers agree that for meaningful change to occur, businesses need to make a committed, sustained effort and approach the problem on multiple fronts.Companies are doing a range of things,” says Ashcraft, “from analyzing job descriptions for bias, evaluating performance evaluation instruments, talent management systems, and employee development plans for subtle biases and inequities. They're training supervisors, implementing more flexible work practices, implementing more effective mentorships and especially sponsorship programs.” In addition, she notes, “identifying potential female talent and consciously developing that talent into future leadership is also important.”

Move in the Right Direction

Tackling the complexities of daily interactions is fundamental to making the IT work environment more gender neutral. “Companies are so different that they have to figure out what works for them,” Ashcraft concludes. “They can learn from each other too, and that’s one of the goals of our Workforce Alliance -- to share innovative ideas and lessons learned with other companies committed to the same objective.”