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The new sisterhood

'Brains, good instincts ...'

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(IDG) -- Progressive and unbiased -- not everyone might use such terms to describe work-force management in the IT industry. Despite the visibility of high-profile female tech execs including Hewlett-Packard's Carly Fiorina, women are underrepresented in the IT field in general and in the executive ranks in particular.

Historically, IT worker pipelines have not been filled with women. According to a study conducted by Arthur Andersen, young men are five times more likely than young women to choose computer science or computer engineering majors in school.

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Still some women are moving up in the IT ranks and reaching out to help others do the same. They're taking on the old boy network.

Monique Boea struggled against financial and educational odds to launch her IT career. When she made it, Boea, a Web developer at Atlanta-based Interland, founded African-American Women in Technology (AAWIT), an organization dedicated to the education, support and advancement of black women in IT.

Boea's role as mentor to other women in information technology didn't come to her easily. In 1997, while working as an administrative assistant at a software company, Boea didn't know HTML from XFL. That changed quickly when she discovered that some IT staffers were making as much as $80,000 per year.

Boea figured if they could do it, so could she. So she set out to pursue a technology career. At first she asked her male colleagues how they'd gotten into IT. Most of the men told her the field was "very difficult to break into," and they said, "Just stick with what you're doing."

Despite their cynicism, Boea began teaching herself HTML and Photoshop, pulling all-nighters and dragging herself to work the next day. "I knew that as a woman -- and especially as a black woman -- I would need to master [Photoshop]," Boea says. "I knew that the design aspect wasn't going to get me $70K to $80K, so I took it a step further and learned Cold Fusion and mastered that."

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As she struggled by herself to learn complicated software programs and the intricacies of Web design and programming, Boea says she often wished for someone or an organization she could turn to for advice. Boea made a promise to herself: If she succeeded in IT, she'd help other women do the same. That promise was the start of AAWIT, which features mentoring programs such as the Study Hall and Big Sister Network.

Through AAWIT, Boea has helped dozens of young women pursue their career goals. One of the AAWIT women whom she mentored, Terri Houston, graduated from college with a marketing major but wanted to move into IT. Together, they devised a plan to help Houston reach her goal. They began with the basics -- HTML, JavaScript, and DHTML -- and then went on to programming. Houston now works as a Web developer.

"Things are definitely changing for the better," Boea says. "As women continue to get the quality training they need and the demand for skilled technology work continues to increase, we will see even more women succeeding in a once male-dominated field."

Early career experiences also motivated Liz Ryan, founder of WorldWIT (Women in Technology) and co-founder of UCentric, a Boston-based home networking provider. As a human resources manager for U.S. Robotics in 1988, Ryan had no tech background.

"I met so many women who were in the minority in their companies as technical professionals, as managers, and especially as senior-level leaders in tech organizations. So I learned to deal with that and learned how not to be marginalized as one woman among lots of men," Ryan says.

To assist other women, Ryan started ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) in mid-1999, as a Chicago listserv for businesswomen in IT. That soon grew into WorldWIT, a group of region-focused e-mail lists. Ryan says that mentoring is "a huge focus" for the groups. WorldWIT also sponsors job fairs, speaker panels, and networking events.

Because men still far outnumber women on management teams, corporate boards, and in venture capital firms, it is difficult to move up the corporate ladder without their support. "That's OK by me," Ryan says, "I've had incredible male mentors, and I value the support of lots of men in my 'sphere' -- but part of WorldWIT's mission is to use the women contacts that we do have to help each other."

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The new sisterhood

GirlGeeks also helps women in technology. In 1985 when Kristine Hanna started her video editing career at film studio Lorimar, she was one of the few women doing that sort of work at the time. She felt isolated and intimidated.

"I was asked to sit on more than one lap, and my head got patted way too many times. There were few women around to mentor me, to go to for guidance. And the few women around were trying to get into the old boy club, rather than helping other women out.

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"I can't blame them; they were just trying to advance their careers. But there was still a definite lack of camaraderie and support," Hanna says.

Now Hanna says women IT leaders reach out to other women. "In the past, there was the perception that if you were a woman who helped another woman get ahead, you were either a feminist or stupid, because you were just making room for the woman you helped to take away your job.

"I think IT women are realizing that, in fact, by helping other women move ahead, they are helping themselves since so much of the IT industry is built on relationships. As more women are assuming senior positions, more women are being hired to fill middle and entry level positions, thus creating more opportunities for women."

Demand for tech workers may be a "great equalizer" for women, according to a techies.com survey. (See "He clicked, she clicked" in Related Stories below for a full report.)

The survey of tech pros found that the salaries of women in IT "are essentially at par" with what their male counterparts earn during the first five years of their careers. Study leaders credit that parity to younger hiring managers who bring new work-force-building attitudes with "fewer and fewer reasons to differentiate between male and female employees."

As experience grows, however, the wage gap appears. At the five-year mark, women earn about 8 percent less than their male counterparts.

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'Brains, good instincts ...'

It's not just women who struggle with their careers. Barbra Cooper, group vice president and CIO for Toyota Motor Sales, in Torrance, California, believes that both men and women have difficulty reaching the corner office.

"Difficulty in reaching the executive ranks is equal in my mind between men and women since you need to have brains, good instincts, good people skills and [you must be] willing to put in the time to gain enough experience," Cooper says.

In fact Cooper sees women having an advantage over men in management. "I think the outlook for women is good in leadership roles in IT, because women are often better at building relationships, communicating, and having the patience it takes to educate staff and users and executives on the many challenges and complexities of business and IT."

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In fact, being a women in IT has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for Lynn Caddell, head of the technology group at Yellow Technologies, a transportation services company, in Overland Park, Kan. In 1984, she joined Motorola as a software engineer and began her technical management career. Currently, she has some 400 reports, of which almost 50 percent are women -- a contrast to the usual staff makeup of the mostly male-dominated transportation business.

Caddell hasn't experienced gender bias and discrimination. "I have never had any instances in my career where I feel I've been held back or not taken as an equal. Now maybe it's because I grew up with three brothers. Maybe it's because I interact differently. I don't know."

Even so, Caddell recognizes the importance of encouraging young women to enter IT. Her company, Yellow Technologies, participates in the nationwide DeVry Her World program. High school students and their counselors come in to the company for a day, see technology demonstrations, and talk to employees about their jobs.

"It is important for the young women to have role models and mentors to show them that companies focus on your skills and your ability versus the fact that you're a male or a female," Caddell says. "With the decrease in the number of females choosing IT majors, we must continue to educate women on the career opportunities in IT and other more technical positions."

"No matter what anyone says, to get to the top positions requires a combination of dedicated mental bandwidth and plain, old-fashioned time commitment to compete with the guys who possibly have a spouse who does not work."
— Barbra Cooper, CIO, Toyota Motor Sales

Ultimately, corporate America and female IT leaders need to reach out to younger women and educate them about the opportunities in the IT field, says Karen Kurek, partner in charge of Arthur Andersen's Growth and Retention of Women (GROW) program. "They also need to demonstrate that career advancement without compromising work-life integration is a reality," Kurek says.

But the message conveyed must be balanced. "My message to women I mentor is to develop a perspective about themselves and who they are and what they may want in business, since it requires a great deal of balance," Toyota's Cooper says.

"No matter what anyone says, to get to the top positions requires a combination of dedicated mental bandwidth and plain, old-fashioned time commitment to compete with the guys who possibly have a spouse who does not work.

"Understand the tradeoffs and learn to relax, especially as it relates to how you go about navigating your career."

Coming Friday from CNN's Allison Tom: The latest on Aliza Sherman, founder of Cybergrrl and Webgrrls International -- here on CNN.com/Career and CNN television.

[watercooler]



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Crowning careers: IT workers still rule
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Workplace gender gap -- Women and men: Payday
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