More opportunity, fewer women in IT
November 11, 1998
by Barb Cole-Gomolski
(IDG) -- Opportunities may abound in information technology, but the number of women in the field is dwindling.
Compared with 10 years ago, women make up a smaller percentage of computer science graduates, and the percentage of women in IT has shrunk from 35% in the early 1990s to 29% today, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Observers cited several reasons for the shift, though there are no definitive answers. Some cited the long-held belief that girls aren't encouraged at the same rate as boys to pursue science and math in school. In addition, few opportunities for management jobs and the need to juggle job and family cause women to abandon their IT careers, observers said.
"We're losing in a number of places," said Pauline Nist, vice president for product and technology at the Tandem division of Compaq Computer Corp. in Cupertino, Calif. Few women study computer science, and of those who do, many end up leaving the field, she said.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of women graduating with bachelor's degrees in computer science has dropped from about 37% in 1984 to 28% in 1995. Some said young women are put off by the stereotype of the computer geek who lacks social skills and is focused on technical duties.
Denise Gurer, chairwoman of Committee on Women at the Association for ComputingMachinery, a New York-based computing professionals' society, said women may be turned off to computers at an early age because their first exposure is through male-oriented video games.
Later, as they go through college, women may find that computer labs may have a locker room mentality. "Things like screen savers of scantily clad women are common," said Gurer, who has a doctorate in computer science and works as a researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.
During her career, Gurer said she has often felt that she "had to prove herself more" than her male colleagues.
Not so for Nist, who said one of the things she loves about the industry is that "it's much more concerned about your ability than whether you are a man or a woman." The downside is that to get ahead, you have to be willing to make some sacrifices, she said. "Some of the really great women I've had working for me left to havebabies and then reevaluated whether they wanted such demanding careers," she said.
Niss said because of shortened product cycles and corporate downsizing, IT departments have become less "family friendly" in the past few years.
For instance, Christine Finlayson left her job as a software engineer at Santa Cruz, Calif.-based The Santa Cruz Operation Inc. after the birth of her second child a few years ago. "I needed something less stressful, and I only wanted to work part time," said Finlayson, who now spends about 20 hours per week managing software beta programs from her home in the Seattle area.
The declining presence of women in IT hasn't gone unnoticed, and some schools are trying to do something about it. For instance, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the percentage of women in the computer science program has jumped from 8% to 20% during the past three years, saidAllan Fisher, associate dean at the university's School of Computer Science.
The increase is partly because the school has become more flexible about the progression of courses students have to take. "It makes it easier for male and female students who may not have that much prior experience with computers to enter the curriculum," Fisher said.
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