by Lauren Gibbons Paul

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

Sep 15, 200116 mins
IT Leadership

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.

True Grit

The lone sister of four brothers, Karen Hogan learned early on how to get the boys in her life to do what she wanted. Hogan’s father was in the Navy, and the family moved frequently?Florida, New York and Hawaii? before settling in Virginia Beach, Va. The oldest child, Hogan was about 12 when she realized her younger brothers were getting too old to be bossed around. “It was a rude awakening,” she recalls. “Rather than just telling them what to do, I had to coax them and listen to them. That’s a lesson that transfers very well to the real world: less bossing, more listening.”

Hogan earned a BS in 1969 and married right out of college. Her first job was as an elementary school librarian. “There weren’t a whole lot of obvious career choices for women then,” says Hogan dryly. She took several years off to raise her children and in 1978 decided to look for a job in computers with the federal government in Mechanicsburg, Pa. That’s when she realized having a college degree, excellent grades and a perfect score on the federal entrance exam were not necessarily enough to catapult her over menial jobs such as data entry. But with a little pluck?and a belief in her own abilities?she pressed on.

After winning the aforementioned berth in the computer-training program, Hogan followed her father’s path and started working for the Navy supporting computer users. After that, the promotions and raises were fairly steady. She avoided travel as much as possible in order to care for her young family. But by the middle of the 1980s, with her marriage crumbling, she decided to seize the opportunity to move from governmental level GS-12 to a GS-13, the first rank with management responsibility. To do so, she had to relocate to the Washington, D.C., area. In 1986, her divorce complete, she moved with her kids (then in the fifth and seventh grades) to northern Virginia.

It wasn’t easy being a single parent trying to get ahead in government in those days. “At the time, the work wasn’t very flexible. The work hours were the work hours,” says Hogan, who missed many of her children’s softball and baseball games. Her mostly male bosses at governmental agencies ranging from the Navy to the Department of Defense to the Census Bureau were not yet cognizant of the concept of work and life balance.

But Hogan stuck with it and eventually began to break through. Her ticket up the ladder? A willingness to take on unpopular projects. “Things came along that the men didn’t want to do?that’s one of the keys to how I progressed. I always did things they didn’t want to do,” she says. As a first-year intern in the Navy’s Civilian Training Program, Hogan took on the task of briefing senior officials on the types of software programs the department was supporting. “My boss didn’t want to take it on. A lot of it was well beyond my level at the time,” she says. “After a few years, I had had responsibility for acquisition, telecomm, standards development, program management, software development and implementation, hardware?a whole broad range of things.” These are skills that a CIO needs, she says.

Although she is now deputy CIO at the Department of Commerce?just below the CIO level?she has no desire to get to the next level. For one thing, the money wouldn’t be much better, since she is within $3,000 of the pay cap. And although her kids are now grown, she is not willing to take the hit on her personal time that being CIO would mean. Hogan vacationed with her husband, a retired Drug Enforcement Agency official, in Europe for two weeks this spring?sans e-mail or pager. “[My current] position fits well with my lifestyle,’’ she says.

In her current capacity, Hogan believes she can still play a significant role in new challenges, such as implementing electronic government at her agency. “I’m having fun,” she says. “And I am grateful for the opportunities that have come my way.”

Blown Sideways Through IT

Sixteen years younger than Hogan, Nancy Ingalls started out with the doors to IT wide open. With a natural affinity for machines and a curiosity about the growing computer industry, it wasn’t hard for her to pick up a BA in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh. And she had no problem getting a job in IT and gaining proficiency in systems ranging from the AS/400 to DB/2 to Unix as she hopscotched up the career ladder from one job to the next.

Ingalls was a divorced single mother with two small children working full time during college. The constant juggling of kids and work didn’t stop once she got her degree. After being divorced for five years, she married her current husband, a driver for the Guaranteed Overnight Delivery service, who has two children. The couple soon had a daughter of their own, completing the “yours, mine and ours” scenario. Unlike many women coming along in IT, Ingalls had the luxury of a husband who was the primary caregiver to the children. Because he is a truck driver, he works mostly at night, leaving him available for doctor’s appointments and school meetings during the day. “He’s quite a guy,” says Ingalls.

Ingalls, now 37, was hired at Circuit City Stores in Richmond, Va., in 1997. And for the next few years, she earned good reviews and steady promotions. But in February of this year she was demoted from her position as a project manager for the $10 billion consumer electronics retailer. The company was suffering through cutbacks at the time, and hundreds of people were laid off. However, four male project managers were allowed to stay on in their positions. Only Ingalls was knocked down to systems analyst, a lower-level technical position. Ingalls says senior management did not appreciate her outspokenness, a trait they encourage in male IT staff.

“It’s really difficult to be a strong female manager in IT. You’re expected to act differently from men. It’s ’We give you the orders, and we expect you to carry them out,’” says Ingalls, who recently left Circuit City and is now a data architecture consultant for Trigon Blue Cross Blue Shield in Richmond, Va.

This was not the first setback Ingalls experienced at Circuit City. In January 2000, CIO Dennis Bowman denied her a $20,000 bonus pledged to her for Y2K remediation work. Ingalls had finished a Y2K project in June 1998 but had been promised that she would still get the bonus if she began work on a non-Y2K-related project. Ingalls says that Bowman’s rationale for denying her the bonus was that it was for those who toiled on Y2K for years without hope of advancement, while Ingalls was promoted at the end of her project. According to Ingalls, a male coworker was promoted at the same time she was but still received his bonus. (Circuit City spokesman Jim Babb declined to comment on her situation but says the company has a policy that prohibits discrimination.)

Someone who had worked for Ingalls on the Y2K project offered to give her his bonus. “People thought what had happened to me was so unfair,” says Ingalls. Her experience is perhaps not surprising in a company where the CIO is male, three IT executive vice presidents are male, two IT vice presidents are male, five IT directors are male and 18 managers are male. The full roster of Circuit City IT executives includes only three women, Ingalls says. “I’ve seen them hold other women back. It’s no secret.”

Ingalls was disappointed to find that Circuit City was not going to be the place to hang her hat. “I was looking for a place I could retire from and not do so much travel,” says Ingalls. In addition to family demands, she plays clarinet with the Richmond Pops Band and also picks up other musical gigs from time to time. (Ingalls plays six other instruments: tenor sax, flute, alto sax, baritone sax, oboe and piano.) Her music, she says, helps sustain her through the professional knocks she’s taken.

After her experiences at Circuit City, Ingalls no longer wants to be a CIO. She hopes to go into consulting, where she believes it will be easier to win more respect. “Consulting allows you to stay out of the political end of things,” she says. Of course, Ingalls’ career is still a work in progress. She may yet move up the ladder or start her own business some day. “I’ve been knocked down many times, but I never really hit the ground,” she says.

The Price of Success

Visitors to Raytheon’s website listing of corporate executives have to scroll through 25 pictures of men in dark suits (along with two women) before Rebecca Rhoads’ fresh face pops up near the bottom of the page. Rhoads is the newly appointed CIO of the $16.9 billion defense electronics manufacturer based in Lexington, Mass.

Rhoads’ presence in this male-dominated lineup is unexpected?astonishing, really?when you consider her industry (defense is the ultimate man’s world), her age (44) and the fact that she’s a relative newcomer to IT (she moved from engineering to technology just three years ago). But if others are amazed at her velocity, Rhoads is not. This is a person whose first job?while putting herself through undergrad?was designing seeker head test systems for the RAM missile at General Dynamics. Having earned an executive MBA as well as a master’s in electrical engineering, she ran an 800-person systems development group for Hughes Aircraft by the age of 40. Many more promotions followed.

Meanwhile, her personal life was advancing right along with her career. Rhoads married an entrepreneur shortly after college, had two children in rapid succession and settled in Tucson, Ariz. While her kids were small, she worked as a professor at the California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona, which gave her the flexibility to be there for her children in the afternoon.

After nearly 20 years burnishing her engineering career, Rhoads hankered for a change. One day in 1997, she decided technology was the place to be. That very afternoon, Rhoads set her sights on the CIO position. “I said to myself, ’I can do that job,’” she recalls during a recent interview in her spacious new office at Raytheon headquarters in Lexington. Every available surface in her office is covered with papers, and unpacked boxes line the floor. Despite the fact that this is Rhoads’ home away from home, there are precious few knickknacks or photos.

For now, the 5-foot-2-inch CIO is willing to put her family life on the back burner. She travels around the country meeting with Raytheon IT managers during the week, starting at corporate headquarters and circling back on weekends to her family in Tucson. Her son will start his freshman year in college this year; her daughter will be a junior in high school. During the weekdays, Rhoads’ husband is in charge of the home front, helping their daughter with homework and dealing with the vicissitudes of adolescence. But despite being away from home, Rhoads is far from disengaged. She and her daughter have been collecting “Got Milk?” ads together for nearly 10 years now, and Rhoads says she is always flipping through old magazines when she travels and cutting out new ads to add to their collection.

Like any mother, she worries endlessly. When her son recently moved into his first on-campus apartment, she was glad to be traveling that day so that she could give him the space he needed to adjust. “If I had been in town, I would have been over there every five minutes trying to mother him,” she says. “This way, I’m giving him what he needs, a chance to adjust.”

Even so, Rhoads acknowledges her work and family balance is out of whack these days. “I’ve always had a mental time clock; [the best time for my career to take off would be] when they’re both in college,” she says. “That’s when it’s a different equation.” But her youngest is still in high school, “so all of this is happening a little quicker than I planned,” Rhoads notes, admitting to some misgivings. “It’s because I’m stepping into a new role. When that happens, you’re always plagued with self-doubt for a few months: Can I do this? My family hates me. That’s the painful part of growing. But with each job I have always been able to regain the balance.”

The plan now is for her husband to find the right manager to help him run his Tucson-based professional services business, then he and their daughter will move to the Boston area. Rhoads recognizes that the transition must be gradual. “It wouldn’t be fair if I moved them away from their support systems and then was never around for them. I would rather be here, work the 20-hour days, basically sleep under the table. Then when I go home, for those two days, I am absolutely there for them,” she says. Rhoads actually sleeps in an efficiency apartment near headquarters. But when her family is not in town, she does stay late at the office, often working until 8 or 9 p.m. or attending dinner meetings late into the evening.

Rhoads believes the work and family burden would be alleviated if there were more women in executive roles. “If there were more women in higher positions, maybe more types of role models and lifestyles could be accommodated,” she says.

But for now, her greatest wish is to have an impact on the business itself. “Businesses are totally dependent today on their [IT] systems,’’ she says. “They’re at the forefront of many of our business decisions. What a great opportunity to get in and contribute.”