Friday, March 11, 2005

Why Women Leave IT

"Why Women Leave IT" is the title of an article at a site called NewsFactor (which I had never heard of before today; I saw this link on Slashdot). My first reaction when I see articles like this linked on Slashdot is to cringe. Rarely are these articles insightful or helpful. And this article is no exception.

The article is short, and its main point seems to be this: About 10 years ago, women made up just over 40% of all workers in the information technology field. As of 2002, that number has dropped to 35% and, as the article breathily states, "the downward spiral is gaining momemtum." The article cites a study out of the University of Arkansas which has found the reason for this downward spiral. The reason? "[C]ertain facts of women's lives make staying ahead of the game harder than it is for men."

Yep, it's the Mommy Track argument all over again.

Now, I will grant you that the information technology field moves quickly. There are many innovations, new software comes out all the time, etc. You do have to make an effort to keep up with things. I don't dispute that at all. And I will also grant you, as the article/study point out, that women do tend to share more of the domestic responsibilites than men do, which may limit the time that they have to spend keeping up on the latest trends in the field. (And the article does make the excellent point that most training is held on evenings and/or weekends, which can be tough for anyone that has family responsibilities or any other responsibilities outside of work, like volunteering or whatever.)

What I do resent is the article's tone that this is the only reason, or the only important reason, for women leaving the IT field. And, to some extent, the article's tone that "this is the way things are, oh well." What the article leaves out are several other important factors that also may very well influence why women are leaving the IT field. Such as:

1. the whole dot-com bust. Lots of techies lost their jobs, lots of students stopped going for IT degrees. Past studies have shown (sorry, too lazy to find links) that these downturns disproportionately affect underrepresented groups: fewer of them choose to major in IT fields, perhaps in some cases they are the first to be let go from their jobs, and they are not hired back at the same rate as their male counterparts. So, their numbers shrink faster and grow back much more slowly.

2. Um, how about the whole "chilly climate" thing? Hello? Have we forgotten that the tech fields are still (not always, not everywhere, but it still exists) not all that friendly to women in the first place? The macho lone programmer mentality? The 12-year-old-with-no-social-skills as the accepted standard of behavior? The old boys network? The pseudo-social scientists running around reminding us that women are not supposed to be doing this hard technical stuff (and coworkers who may or may not agree; you just don't know for sure what they think).....

3. Less women in IT = less women entering IT. This is the whole "critical mass" argument. If there are less women around, the tendency will be to hire less women. Because we hire those who look like us, think like us, act like us. Women need to be at the table to bring more women to the table, so the downward spiral becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In short, I'm really disappointed in this article. Here is a golden opportunity to take a problem (women are leaving IT in disproportionate numbers), examine one cause of this (the way women's lives tend to be structured, and the way the field operates, do not intersect), and oh, I don't know, use it as a springboard to discuss what's wrong with the field, not what's wrong with women. But that didn't happen. Why is it that we are so willing to accept things like this at face value and that we are so unwilling to discuss how to change the world to fit present realities?


Rudbeckia Hirta said...

When I was an undergrad, it was pretty clear that to be a successful student in CS or chemistry or any of the engineering disciplines or a few other majors, that the students had to put in WAY more time/effort than students in other majors (like, um, math). (You may now conjure up a mental split-screen image of the math majors sitting around having a good time at 11pm while on the other side of the screen there are a bunch of cs majors slaving away in the lab.)

The common view that I saw among people (all demograpics) who were taking CS classes was that when you put together all the social bs with all the work, that you needed a pretty good reason to STAY in CS. My male friends cited a need to make a lot of money / take on the breadwinner role as their #1 reason for sticking it out. My female friends cited a need to be happy as a reason to switch to a different academic discipline that was just as inherently interesting but that was more pleasant to study -- even if you couldn't make as much money in that field.

Laura said...

I read that article and thought it was really stupid. It just kept repeating itself without any real insight. How about if IT departments start giving women time during the work week to go to training? provide telecommuting opportunities? slap sexist pigs silly? Okay the last one is harsh, but man, they missed the point, didn't they?

Andy said...

I know our IT dept gives that stuff Geeky Mom mentioned to both men and women. We have an IT tech that just had a baby and she works from home by VPN part time while she is recovering and will eventually come back full-time.

For us IT is different than IS, our IT people are the ones who maintain the network and do installs etc. IS are people who went to college for CS and write computer programs for a living.

We don't have any women in the IS development groups but as we have these things available to us, I know it would be no different if a woman worked here. Our company is extremelly gender concious about not descriminating. We have many directors and up that are female so I don't get to see to any inequity in the work place. But then again we once people start working here they almost never leave so all the women that were in the IT dept five years ago when I started in IS are still here.

To date we have only had one qualified woman apply for an IS position as a developer. I would have hired her in an instant but I got over-ruled by somebody much higher on the food chain. Who has since admitted to me he wishes we had gone with my choice. We had 500+ applicants for that job. Only two were women and only one made it to the interview stage, the other was grossly under-qualified(think secretary who had written some MS Access VBA macros applying for a full-time systems level development position).

I think Rudbekia may have nailed it though. They are way less women who even start in a CS program so when you get the usual wash out from people realizing that CS is one of those careers where if you don't love it you aren't going to make it, the women wash out with the men but as there were less of them to start with you end up with a whole lot less of them in the work force. CS is hard, not as hard as being a surgeon but hard enough that we see nearly the same first year wash out rates that many medical programs see. If you don't love it then the cons far outweigh the pros so people switch. At most Universities by default if you take CS as a major you end up with Math as a minor so when many people hit that third year crunch where sh!t starts getting really hard they have had so much math they can simply switch to something like Accounting or Math and graduate quickly. So we see the biggest wash out rates in the first and third years or at least my class did.

Based on the reviews so far I'm going to skip that article.

What would be more intersting to know is why more women and minorities don't go into CS in the first place. I was at some meetings out of town for the last two days. Developers from all over our corporation were there(we are the largest corporation of our kind in the world). Not a single woman developer was present. There was only one woman there at all and she was a project manager not a developer. I asked around if anybody worked with any female developers and the main answer that I got was "No, we've never had any apply".

Laura said...

Actually, Andy, that's one of the questions my husband works on. Where are the women in CS programs? He actually teaches at an all-women's college, so that there are only women in his program, but he works with people around the country to figure out how to attract more women.