Making Your IT Department More Attractive to Women

Want more women on your staff? You need to do more than offer family-friendly employee benefits. Women at every level of the career ladder describe the corporate behavior that can attract them to a company--or chase them away.

By Esther Schindler
Mon, March 31, 2008

CIO — "Generally, women aren't very interested in programming computers," wrote Malcolm McLean, a gaming programmer, in comp.programming on Usenet. He was responding to a question about how to attract more women to IT jobs. "For instance, if you look at recent posts in this newsgroup, you'll find only one female regular," he added.

In McLean's experience, IT is a man's world. At a gaming company he worked for, his hours were from 3 to 3. Everyone on his team was single, under 30 and male. So it's no wonder McLean doesn't think women are interested in IT: he didn't see them at work, therefore, they're not interested in computers.

Rather than see the lack of women at his company as a challenge to be addressed, he views it as the status quo: "That's not something I see a point in trying to change," he wrote.

Such dismissive attitudes toward women in IT are still common in IT shops, and many IT shops are not unlike the environment in which McLean works. Though McLean's work environment may sound extreme with its odd hours, its gender disparity and clueless assumptions about women are representative of IT departments across America.

The environment McLean describes also represents why some companies have so much trouble attracting women to their IT departments: they cater to men, and men expect women to conform to their boys club. Few women will choose to put up with such behavior, so when they see signposts that indicate your shop is unwelcoming, they vote with their feet.

Although we'd like to believe otherwise, gender is an issue in hiring and retaining technical talent. Often, in our effort to hire the best person for the job, we create an environment that chases away the best candidate when that candidate is a woman. At a time when a shortage of qualified workers threatens the productivity of every IT department, IT leaders need to do everything they can to bring smart women into the fold. In this article, women at every level of the IT career ladder explain what companies can do to attract more women into their IT departments. Their recommendations may surprise you. They're not all about the freedom to nurse on company property or generous maternity leave. Some ideas are just as simple as offering company T-shirts in smaller sizes when you're giving them away at conferences and recruiting fairs. Basically, women just want to know you're thinking about them.

Acknowledge Women's Differences

Treating women equally is important, but companies succeed when they acknowledge each gender's needs. For example, putting "feminine products" in the women's restroom sends a clear message that the company is aware of women's needs and cares about them. It's no different from supplying a cabinet in the office kitchen with pain-relievers, acid reducers and first aid kits.

"Most interviewees end up there [in the bathroom], and a box of tampons really says 'It isn't a man's world,'" says Elecia White, embedded systems lead with ShotSpotter, which makes gunshot and sniper detection and location systems for the law enforcement and military markets, in Mountain View, Calif.

Of course, women have more than physical differences, and the savvy company will pay attention to them and appeal to women's natural instincts.

"Many women in IT, and women in general, are natural nurturers," says Kelly Hall, IT vice president at Kentucky Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company. That's why women appreciate employers that show a desire to nurture and invest in employees through training, tuition reimbursement, wellness programs and competitive benefits, she says.

For similar reasons, women are also attracted to companies whose products or services make a difference in the world. White says the companies she's worked for in the past whose goals were to in some way improve people's lives employed more women engineers than the widget-makers and defense and sports companies she worked for. She recommends companies find authentic ways to articulate to prospective female employees how the company improves people's lives.

If your company's mission doesn't explicitly serve the greater good, it can still demonstrate a social conscience, and that will attract women. Give people time off to do volunteer work, suggests Lisa Crispin, an agile tester, or offer a company match for charitable donations.

Next: Are women employees visible?

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