Why Women Hate IT

In 2000, almost half of all IT job openings went begging. At the same time, women were leaving the IT ranks at twice the rate of men. How can we stop this madness?

The Boca Raton Resort & Club looms over Florida's Gold Coast like some swank pink phantasm of the Jazz Age. A gaudy, sherbet confection of Spanish-Mediterranean, Moorish and Gothic excess, with hidden gardens, barrel-tile roofs, archways, ornate columns and critter-studded fountains—the ladies' rooms alone could pass for posh digs on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

The resort, spread over 356 acres, offers a confounding choice of pleasures: 34 tennis courts, two championship golf courses, five pools, a marina, the usual salons attendant to health and beauty and, of course, a half-mile of perfect, private beach. And there are smaller enjoyments as well—white-jacketed, multilingual waiters hefting perspiring silver trays of freshly squeezed lime coolers.

It's a small wonder in this setting—where recent guests have included former President George Bush, Robert Redford, John Travolta, Oprah Winfrey and Elton John—that the attendees at last May's Giga Information Group's GigaWorld IT Forum 2000 would stand out, a bit like William Golding's plane-wrecked schoolboys in Lord of the Flies. At the opening session—a rousing call to action on globalization for e-business (I smell IT spirit!)—the optimism among the thousand or so mid- and senior-level IT managers brought together to talk infrastructure and application development, CRM and wireless protocols is palpable. But what's wrong with this picture? I glance around the grand ballroom and realize that I am one of the few women in a veritable sea of white males.

It reminds me of my stint as a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, where my buddies, the baseball writers, were all guys, and the Dodger organization sent me a tie for Christmas. Sports guys, IT guys. It's a similar kind of vibe. The Boys of IT. Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud's not-so-friendly student, colleague and adversary, used the term puer aeternus (eternal boy) to describe the archetypal boy (women: think Peter Pan, problematic boyfriends and ex-husbands) whose traits include spontaneity and restlessness, proclivity to tinker, prankishness, ties to mom and awkwardness around girls. Thanks to IT, puer aeternus now commands a big salary and stock options, and is the most coveted, heavily recruited category of professionals on the face of the earth. His counterpart, puella aeterna, the eternal girl, might as well be home baking cookies.

James Brown sang it so long ago: It's a man's, man's, man's world! Can it still be so? In IT, absolutely.

Boys and Girls: Not Together

The facts are beyond dispute. A study, "Opportunities and Gender Pay Equity in New Economy Occupations," issued by the White House Council of Economic Advisers last May noted that women make up only 29 percent of workers in IT occupations, compared with 47 percent in the general workforce. And despite high-profile exceptions like Carly Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard's CEO in Palo Alto, Calif., women are virtually absent from the ranks of senior IT management.

Midway through the Giga conference, at the de rigueur beach party, the true dimensions of the gender gap are made plain. What kind of party is this, with some 900 men and (maybe) 50 women? The band plays "Louie Louie," a couple of buff vendors prance with a handful of game women, hundreds of guys huddle in small, quiet packs, sucking on bottles of beer. More than a few of the women make early exits. The band's rendition of "La Vida Loca" inspires a handsome, young, socially adept Argentinean, an e-biz entrepreneur, to dance with two and three women at a time. I stake out a partner in a Hawaiian shirt and floppy hat near the edge of the dance floor. He's willing but says, "It's been a long time—can you lead?" Several hundred other men hold their ground. The gender disproportion is truly weird.

The causes of the disparity are rooted in that age-old conundrum of what is men's work and what is women's work.

In a two-year study released last April, "Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age," the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in Washington, D.C., looked hard at female attitudes. The findings suggest one ineluctable fact: The vast majority of girls and women hate IT.

According to Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology at MIT and cochair of the AAUW study commission, girls are not computer-phobic, they are "computer-reticent," asserting a "we can, but [we] don't want to" attitude toward technology. When asked, they most often express the view that computing involves work that is "tedious, sedentary and—most critically—antisocial." The report notes that "girls often position themselves as morally or socially more evolved than boys who, they tell us, enjoy 'taking things apart' and interacting with 'machines.'" Girls expressed the view that IT-related careers are a "waste of intelligence," that they want careers where they can "make a difference," while boys just "want to make money." Significantly, the report says girls are often ignorant about IT career options and are "only vaguely aware of the social, interactive and creative applications of computers."

The AAUW notes: "There is no question that there is defensiveness in the way girls denigrate these activities."

Where Have All the Women Gone?

What we have here is what used to be called a failure to communicate, an IT scenario of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

According to the White House study, women in IT earn on average about 60 percent more than women in other occupations. The opportunities are there. Yet the same study reports that female IT share in the workforce has actually fallen from a peak of 40 percent in 1986 to today's 29 percent.

This last point mystifies Anita Borg, founder and president of the Institute for Women and Technology and a member of the research staff at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Borg earned a doctorate in computer science from the Courant Institute at New York University in 1981 and worked for Digital Equipment Corp.'s Western Research Laboratory in Palo Alto before coming to Xerox. At Digital, she developed tools for predicting the performance of microprocessor memory systems. The leading voice for the advancement of women in science and technology, she cofounded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a biennial conference for women computer scientists.

"Just because everybody is saying that the number of women going into the field has gone down, we shouldn't forget that there was a bubble of women who went into computer science in the mid-1980s, and those women today would have 15 years of experience," says Borg.

"I was part of that bubble," she continues. "I feel as if there are a lot of women my age around—but the numbers suggest that many more have disappeared, and we have no hard data on where they've gone."

The declining number of women in IT (the White House study says they're leaving at twice the rate of men) is even more remarkable given that we are in the longest economic expansion in American history and the labor shortage for skilled IT workers is famously acute. The Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., expects that half of the 1.6 million IT job openings expected this year will likely go begging.

"If recruiters don't see women as a resource," Borg says, "they're crazy."

It's not just a question of womanpower fixing the staffing crisis. In Borg's view, IT sorely misses the female perspective. "I really believe women bring incredible richness and diversity of thought, perspective, new ways of looking at problems," she says. "But to get that, first you have to create an environment where women are really comfortable contributing."

The Lonely Cubicle

Women who came into IT in the 1970s and '80s—and stuck to it—recall the loneliness they felt starting out. While at Digital, Borg stunned her coworkers at an internal conference with an impromptu speech titled "Why There Are Only Seven Women Left in Research at Digital," instead of speaking from a prepared text on microprocessors.

Linda Scherr, program director of IBM Women in Technology, says that when she was hired 27 years ago, she was the only woman among 80 trainees in her systems programming class. "I'm ashamed to say that I didn't look around and say, 'Where are the women?'" she says. "I looked around and said, 'Ain't I special!' I thought I was really something playing in the man's world. Now I can categorize women in two ways: There are women who can adapt themselves very well to the prevailing culture, which is the male-dominated culture, and do fine. I'm one of those people. What I have gotten an appreciation for is the other category of women who are not as comfortable and for whom the prevailing culture actually will  cause them to deselect themselves. That's what we have to fix."

Scherr says girls and women can easily imagine becoming lawyers or doctors because it's obvious what medicine and law do for society. "But switch to engineering, and it's not obvious what engineers do at all," she says. "In computer science, what's obvious is that these people work long hours. The role model is Dilbert, cubicles, dumb, geeky-looking people."

"Women are all about relationships," says Kris Van Buren, the founder of Yosemite Systems, an IT recruiting firm in Reno, Nev. "They respond to how they are treated in the interview process, the courtesy and the openness, attitude, environment—all of these things are more important to women than men," she says. "Elegance is more important to women. Women don't go for that down and dirty, OK, doesn't matter, give me a cup of coffee. The guys don't really care. There are so many guys, they already feel comfortable."

Foosball, Anyone?

At a panel discussion last June at Harvard University's Internet & Society conference on gender issues in the IT workplace, Stefan Pagacik, a futurist with LavaStorm, an Internet engineering company with offices in Waltham, Mass., and San Jose, Calif., stands up to say that senior management at his startup wants to hire women—would hire any qualified individual, given the acute labor crunch—but women rarely apply or respond to recruiting efforts. "Why is that?" he asks. The mostly female crowd swivels to get a better look, and some let out a low, knowing, sisterly snicker.

LavaStorm's staff of 160 includes 37 women (or 23 percent). The CFO is a woman. Five of the engineers are women. One is a senior engineer and three others are programmers. But one-third of the women work in clerical jobs, the rest in human resources, design and technical writing. The IT staff is all-male.

Given the opportunities, especially the good pay, Jerry Patton, LavaStorm's vice president of human resources, also wonders why so few women apply. "We've had a few conversations here about how to hire women, how to locate them," he says. "But in all honesty, we haven't said, 'Gee, are there other ways to dig out women and talent we haven't tapped?'"

His recruiting methods are standard—Internet job boards, direct-source recruiting (building lists, making calls), employment ads, job fairs and incentives for employee referrals. "Our projects are complex, challenging, leading-edge stuff," he says, citing the launch of Goldpocket.com, a live Internet trivia program that can handle more than 4 million concurrent users. "That's an advantage, to be able to tell our applicants that they'll be playing a role in this interesting, challenging project." On the money side, the pitch includes bonuses, profit sharing, stock options and fully paid benefits.

"Then," says Patton, "there's the fun part."

The company allocates 10 percent of its space to RAM (Recreational Activities for Motivation), a warren of playrooms featuring Ping-Pong, foosball, air hockey tables, an indoor batting cage and a massage chair. A full-time "wellness manager" organizes tournaments and thinks of new games for the employees, whose average age is 33. Patton recites the dotcom mantra: "We work hard and play hard," though he admits the noise level from RAM can get a "little obnoxious." Says Patton, "It's not ideal when they start playing hockey. I can't get any work done, can't think straight. You listen long enough, you think somebody's having a baby in there."

He recalls one job applicant who told him she didn't think the "culture" would work for her. "We work in an open environment, and she mentioned something about preferring an office," he says. "Sometimes I wish I had a door to close too."

Jean Marzilli, LavaStorm's recently hired director of staffing, says she is committed to the idea of hiring more women but cites the "energy and effort that goes into finding those folks." Marzilli says she realizes that foosball probably is not much of a lure for women. "But the massage chair is awesome," she says. "It has music; you sit back and relax."

"We've talked about it," Marzilli adds. "What do women want? We joke, maybe have somebody to come in and do our nails? Probably we want practical things, not playthings, ways to simplify our lives, like a concierge service to pick up the dry cleaning or shop for food."

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