by Cheryl Bentsen

Why Women Hate IT

Sep 01, 2000 16 mins
IT Leadership Mentoring

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, 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.”

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.”