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Leveling the IT Playing Field (live copy)

Stepped-up recruiting in the right places can help you find qualified women in the IT field.

April 26, 2001
Traditionally, IT has been a man’s world.

Companies that sought to hire women in IT, whether for cultural fit, gender balance, or bias-lawsuit avoidance, have had a hard time finding women among the ranks of information-technology professionals.

Experts list IT careers among the fastest-growing professions through 2006; however, employers are scrambling to find talented IT workers. It’s even harder to find women IT professionals. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, within the parameters of IT, only 9 percent of American engineers, 27 percent of computer scientists, and 29 percent of computer programmers are women.

All the live long day
The world of the IT professional can be a 24/7 environment—perhaps more appealing to career-at-all-costs men than women. "Men in IT positions tend to be young, very focused and can put their whole life on hold," says Dr. Donna Shirley, assistant dean of advance program development at University of Oklahoma's College of Engineering. It's harder for women, Shirley says, because they are still the ones responsible for caring for children.

In Shirley’s case, motherhood and IT did mesh.

Shirley worked for Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a manager of the Mars Exploration Program and the original leader of the team that built the Sojourner Rover. She stayed home for six weeks after giving birth to her child, and returned to her career after finding excellent company-sponsored child care for her baby. "Companies need woman-friendly policies,” says Shirley, who retired from JPL in 1998, after 30 years of service.

Because IT requires professionals to work long hours, jump on new technology, and cope with constant change, it is “the most difficult profession to balance with other commitments and interests,” Shirley says.

"At Microsoft the average age is 31. Software and dot.com companies primarily employ young men,” she said. Such companies have young-man attitudes, don’t know how to manage people and “don't hire others who understand people," Shirley says. "I think it is rather self-fulfilling that they will continue to hire guys. Attention is going to have to be paid to hiring women."

If companies want to put women in their IT ranks, the jobs will have to be reconfigured for work/life balance. "There are hot jobs, and if those jobs can include ways to allow females to have what they want, like family and relationships within the context of the job, then women are going to go for them," Shirley says.

University connections and other successes
Companies that have been successful in hiring women for technology positions have discovered a number of effective strategies as the demand for skilled professionals increases daily.

Shirley says that companies needing qualified entry-level IT personnel should check with local universities. If the need is for management personnel, Women in Technology International and the Association of Computing Machinery, a professional society for computer scientists, are also good resources.

"Companies can recruit for open IT positions among people with industrial engineering backgrounds. These professionals design systems to be people friendly," Shirley says. "Women are more attracted to system-level things, particularly if there are people involved. Women tend to focus on social systems."

It also helps companies to know which schools are nurturing the interest of women in engineering. At the University of Oklahoma, freshman women who signed up for engineering also got seminars that previewed the college engineering department and what they can expect out of their coursework. The Society of Women Engineers is an active support group for women in engineering at the school.

And the young women can see themselves reflected in the engineering faculty at the university. "We recruit women faculty members all the time,” Shirley says. “We have two females in our computer science department; 52 percent of industrial engineering students are female.” Four of the 10 faculty members in the engineering department are women, Shirley says.

Mentoring and role models
While schools nurture young professionals, companies also can play a role. "Companies need to do outreach. Women must be sought out and placed in both tactical and…strategic senior roles providing valuable peers/mentors for others in the organization," says Donna Morris, director of human resources of JetForm, an Ottawa, Ontario, Canada software and service company. Policies and programs that focus on providing balance, or an opportunity for more flexible options, can increase a company’s chance of drawing talented women in IT, Morris says.

"Without focused HR programs and policies, it is most typically the case that many of the women are on their own, with few female peers, which can pose a problem," Morris says. “The workplace is fast and dynamic, and the IT environment can become a lonely battleground for a woman who might be responsible for child care or elder care,” Morris says.

Some companies, like Nimble Technology, a Seattle, Washington software company, just seem to have the right set of circumstances working to draw women IT candidates. "Two of our founders are associated with the University of Washington. We're in the same town with Microsoft and we seem to have no problem attracting females to our company," says Shelley Godwin, recruiting manager. "Our CEO is a female, and our chief architect is a female. We've made sure our name is known in this community."

To find qualified women, Godwin says the recruiting team belongs to SeattleJobs.org, which does Internet research and job sourcing. "We don't use a lot of outside headhunters but we have one or two we trust," Godwin says. "The majority of people we hire we find from referrals. We receive leads through current employees, board members, and venture capital firms. We feel like great people know great people and would like to work with great people."

Meanwhile, Computer Associates International, Inc. in Islandia, New York has women on the recruiting team, “so that women can relate to women," says Deborah Coughlin, senior vice president . "Women need role models.

"One of our most successful tools is our internal referral program. Our employees offer us resumes of people they know. We offer our employees a bonus of up to $10,000 if we hire that person.” The company also has its eye on IT’s future. “We go out to the targeted high schools with large female populations and we give them a glimpse [of the IT world] and hopefully motivate them into the industry," Coughlin says.