Tech Workplace Climate Unfavorable to Women

Women in tech say they're more likely to be isolated and cut out of decisions, and that experience is driving women from the field.   

By the Bureau of Labor Statistics' own count, women hold 27 percent, just over a quarter, of jobs in computer-related and mathematical occupations. As a result of IT's numerical dominance by men, it has long been viewed as unreceptive to women. Even among women working in technology, dissatisfaction and disenchantment is high.

By many accounts, an uninviting workplace is to blame. A 2007 report published by the trade association WITI (Women in Technology International) found that only 52 percent of female tech workers said their organizations offered a favorable climate for women. These women said they felt that their voices weren't being heard, and it was causing them to question whether the technology workplace was an environment they wished to stay in.

A new report looking at the climate for women working in technological and technical fields echoes these findings. "Women in Technology: Maximizing the Talent, Minimizing Barriers," sponsored by IBM and by Catalyst, a nonprofit promoting women in business, found that although technology companies were making progress, substantial gaps still emerged in the experiences of women employed in technology versus those that were not.

"One of the key things that came out of this was that while women have progressed overall, there has been less progress for women who work in the tech industry," Maria Ferris, director of Global Workforce Diversity Programs at IBM and a contributor to the report, told eWEEK.

Women working in technical roles were less satisfied with their companies' approaches to fairness than women in nontechnical roles and men in both technical and nontechnical roles. They were also less satisfied with their supervisory relationships than women in nontechnical roles.

The report noted that the number of women in specific technical fields has remained flat or declined since the dot-com bust. Though tech employment numbers as a whole have rebounded from the 2001 to 2002 downturn, women have not benefited from it, the report said.

Several factors were seen as driving women away, the first being an exclusionary culture that didn't support their advancement.

"Women don't feel included. Maybe they're the only woman in the department or the organization. Maybe it is that the numbers in tech are so skewed toward men. But it's important to be inclusive, and to train managers on becoming more inclusive. It's not that difficult to ensure that all people who report to you participate in decisions that are made, to call on them and get their input," Ferris said.

Women also felt isolated in technology-focused workplaces due to a lack of role models, networks and mentors. The percentage that said they were provided with regular feedback, good communication or general availability by supervisors was consistently lower among women in technology than men in technology and both women and men in nontechnical fields.

"It may be more exaggerated in technology than with women in general because the numbers just aren't there. This is why mentoring and networking and having role models is so important. If you're a woman in an organization, you need to be able to look up and see people like you. If you can't see yourself there, you can't see yourself in there," Ferris said.

Finally, companies in the high-tech sector were taken to task for failing to strategically and objectively develop talent. IBM, one of the sponsors of the study, said it is taking steps to stem this trend, and noted that its number of female executives has increased nearly fourfold in the past 10 years.

Through several programs, IBM works with women to help them achieve a strong leadership presence in any and all workplace situations, from board rooms to phone calls, the company said.

"We found that men spent more time networking than women, and forming relationships that they'd need as they progressed in their career. So, we worked to get women to network with other women," said Sandy Carter, IBM vice president of WebSphere strategy and a founder of its Super Women's Group, a team aiming to connect female professionals.