Careers: Why IT Hates Women (and the Women Who Stay Anyway)

Karen Hogan understood what she was up against from the get-go. It was 1978, and even though she had scored 100 on the federal government entrance exam, qualifying her to be an entry-level programmer, she was given a job as a keypunch operator. After a few months of that, she applied for a computer-training program, but her boss didn’t approve. "He just decided I should keep keypunching for a while, and he would tell me when I could move along," says Hogan, now 53. Undeterred, she went over his head and ended up before a governmental panel of real old-time bureaucrats, she recalls. They asked her to explain what she had ever done to show she knew how to arrange material logically. Hogan calmly explained the Dewey decimal system, which the panel had apparently never heard of. After only nine months in data entry, she got the nod to attend the training program.

Today, Hogan is acting deputy CIO of the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Like many high-ranking women in public and private sector IT, she has succeeded despite a culture that remains resoundingly male and is frequently hostile to ambitious women. The statistics tell the tale; according to several recent surveys, women CIOs remain a small fraction of those who populate the executive suite. For example, out of the CIOs or CIO-equivalents at 300 Fortune 1000 companies and the 100 fastest-growing companies recently surveyed by Amsterdam, N.Y.-based Sheila Greco Associates, there were only 41 women (13.7 percent), compared with 259 men (86.3 percent). Greco says the percentage of women CIOs has not changed since her research consultancy began its annual survey in 1998.

"If IT were a meritocracy, we would have seen higher representation of women by now," says Mary Mattis, senior research fellow for Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization in New York City. "It seems the IT lifestyle and the work environment are not very attractive to women." According to another recent survey, more than 60 percent of women say the glass ceiling is a reality in IT. They cite a variety of factors: gender bias, stereotypes and the perception that women are less knowledgeable than their male counterparts.

OK, so the glass ceiling still exists. But women are moving up the IT ladder anyway, slowly and through a myriad of different paths. Some say they have been helped along at places by mentors who understand the need for diversity and the special skills that women often bring to the table. (See "What’s the Big Deal?" Page 120.)

Others, like Hogan, have done it by taking on jobs that no one else wants and proving their value. But all of these women acknowledge that the path is strewn with hardship and trade-offs that are impossible to ignore. A divorced mother of two, Hogan’s ascent up the IT ladder did not really begin until her kids were in high school. And even now, she says she wouldn’t want the CIO job at her agency because of the time demands the position would impose on her life. "Right now, I have some ability to have a personal life too. I work long hours, but I can get away from the job when I want to," says Hogan, who remarried a few years back and treasures her personal time.

Women, of course, are not the only gender speared by this issue. While they still bear the brunt of child care and thus find themselves more at odds with the near-constant travel and intense 24/7 demands of being a CIO, several surveys have found that the problem of balancing work and life are of major concern to male CIOs as well. In fact, according to a new online survey by CIO of 310 IT professionals, almost as many men as women?57 percent versus 63 percent, respectively?felt they did not have an appropriate work and life balance in their current job. (See "Where Men and Women Agree," this page.)

"Both men and women realize this is an issue," says Judy Rosener, professor at the Graduate School of Management of the University of California at Irvine. Rosener believes the eventual dismantling of the glass ceiling in IT will take pressure off both sexes. "A lot of men are saying they no longer want the burden of feeling they have to get to the top," she says.

Here then are the stories of three women who have made a career in IT despite the odds. Their experiences should resonate with women?and men?who understand just what it takes to gain entry to the executive suite.

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