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?

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Fear of Computing

After 15 years working in the all-male world of submarine combat control systems for The Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., the din of foosball and table hockey tournaments does not faze Donna Paparella. An electrical engineer and LavaStorm project leader, Paparella finds her current environment cozy. "I ran into a few more problems working with military men who weren't used to having women in their arena or who didn't think the tech could be understood by a woman," she says. "But I've been in a male world for so long, I hardly notice it."

At the Undersea Warfare Center, she saw the difference women can make. "At submarines these are very focused men who dive into their piece and do their creative thing," she says. "The women were more practical; we brought the men back to reality."

As for women's IT aversion, Paparella thinks the problem is based on perception, ignorance and lack of exposure. "A lot of the attitude is self-imposed," she says. "Women think it's boring, uncreative. But I wrote code and loved it."

Paparella has listened to her 12-year-old niece tell her 11-year-old brother that his computer game interests are "silly" and that he spends time at the keyboard because "he's a boy."

Similarly, Paparella sees women friends with distorted views of tech careers. "Some of my girlfriends are their own worst enemies," she says. "I tell them, 'You could do this or that, run the place,' and they say, 'Oh, no!'"

"These days, I try to get my friends to send their résumés here, come in and talk. The contact is made, but it just doesn't happen."

More Than a Job

Last June, the National Security Agency (NSA) announced it was pursuing a government-industry partnership to manage and upgrade its IT systems, a dramatic admission of the vulnerability the highly secretive agency faces in a brutal labor market. Still, the agency, an arm of the Department of Defense that specializes in the protection of U.S. information systems and the production of foreign signals intelligence, and reportedly employs some 40,000 code breakers, eavesdroppers and others, headquartered at Fort Meade, Md., has fared better than most in hiring and retaining IT women. Forty-one percent of its computer scientists  are women, 31 percent of the mathematicians are women and 11 percent of its engineers are women—all higher than the national averages in the private sector, based on information from the 1990 census.

How did the NSA do it, especially given the fact that it can't pay as well as the private industry? Bernard Norvell, an NSA technical director for Human Resources Services, says, "We can appeal to women with continuing-ed programs, onsite child care, flexible work arrangements for employees with child- and elder-care responsibilities and fitness centers. These things are big sellers, very enticing to women."

Deborah Bonnani, director for human resources at the NSA, says the agency's overall attrition rate of 5 percent to 6 percent is low in today's economy. "Among women recruits, we're not seeing any real dropout," she says. "I'm not saying we have a perfect environment, but we are trying. Our second-in-command in our tech organization is a woman. We have powerful, articulate women who are role models. We hope that candidates will be hooked by the mission of contributing to national security. The women here may have the sense they are not just contributing to some company getting richer, that what they do matters."

Woman, Animal or Fish

At the Giga conference, a session on IT staffing makes no special mention of untapped female talent. During the breakout session, Giga analyst Kazim Isfahani says that 75 percent of all e-commerce projects are understaffed and underskilled. As a result, 90 percent of those projects will be late and over budget. "You can muck up your project in so many different ways," says Isfahani. "You just don't want it to be the people issue that is bringing you down."

Weary faces nod in agreement. Isfahani advises the recruiters to think beyond Internet job boards and job fairs and scour nightclubs and cafés for talent. It sounds desperate, but these are desperate times. When asked about specific tactics for recruiting women, however, Isfahani looks blank. "If an organization asks us how to recruit, they just want the skill. They aren't going to care if it's a man or woman, white, black or yellow, animal or fish," he says.

This kind of talk drives Anita Borg up the wall. "The recruiters need to do their homework, for Pete's sake," she says. "What they really need to do is ask women what they want and what is going to make them stay. For example, one of the things women say is that just knowing that a company really cares what [they] want makes a huge difference."

She cites issues of time, family and safety. For example, does the company pay attention to the safety of its female employees? Are there dark parking lots when they have to leave the office late at night? "IT doesn't pay any attention to those things very often," she adds.

The message is clear: What women want is a sense of purpose in their work. They also want to feel connected and needed. A little more kindness, some elegance—a little less foosball.

"The HR people already know that the current staffing problem is not going to be fixed by bringing in foreign workers to fill positions," says Borg.

"The impression I get is that they think it's a big deal to find women. They think they know what women want. But they need to check it out, ask what would make you come here, what would make you stay? They need to ask their current women what are the issues that would make your workplace better and actually act on it."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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