Despite considerable progress, industry leaders and gender advocates make no bones about stating that women are still largely underrepresented in technology, put off by uneven salaries, difficulties balancing home life with the long hours demanded, and a perception that IT is still very much an all boys environment.
Yet, much of this is changing as more women stake their claim on the tech world each year, aided by an improved economy, advocacy groups, recruitment programs and the explosion in the range of perk and flex plans offered by employers.
“Tech companies can be very challenging for women, especially in areas of auto, finance and other typically male-dominated industries. Yet, while women are challenged, they have tremendous opportunities to transform themselves,” Carolyn Leighton, CEO, founder and chairwoman of WITI (Women in Technology International), a trade association for professional women in technology, told eWEEK.
Indeed, women fall well behind their male counterparts in assuming IT leadership roles. A study released in February by the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis found that only four of the 200 largest public companies in California had women serving as CIOs, and that women accounted for only 8.2 percent of the of the highest paid executive officers in these companies.
“Theres a perception, a certainty among women in IT that theyre making less than the guy in the next cube. Theres also a perception that they have to work twice as hard to get ahead,” said Liz Ryan, CEO and founder of WorldWIT (Women, Insights and Technology), a network for women in business and technology.
A UK-based IT study released in May revealed that nearly half the women working in IT believe that they face gender pay discrimination, with more than six in 10 respondents believing that their company did not have a transparent pay structure.
Yet, not all advocates believe the system is at fault for income disparity.
“The biggest challenge for women across the board is to figure out what theyre worth and stop taking less. To position themselves where they are taken seriously and thats something that has to come from the inside out,” said Leighton.
“For a long time, this disparity in pay was due to built-in biases; Ive now reached the conclusion that women are accepting less than they deserve. The worst thing we can do to ourselves is to stay in this victim mentality.”
Signals of changing tides among women in technology are greatly understated as IT trades in its macho image for a gender-irrelevant one.
Membership in professional associations for women in technology is on the rise. WorldWIT boasts 40,000 members worldwide and yearly growth, and WITI membership is 100,000.
“Women are actually better represented in IT than most parts of technology. IT definitely has from our perspective the greatest representation for women, because every business incorporates some aspect of it,” said Leighton.
Salaries, too, are showing signs of rebounding from the dot-com bust era, when women were seen by many as the hardest hit by the slowed economy.
“In the recession, there were big seniority issues, and issues of the skill sets companies chose to retain versus let go of,” Ryan said.
“The women who had negotiated family-friendlier deals for themselves experienced that those things were the first to go.”
These days, the lack of women in tech fields is considered a top-tier issue, with industry leaders from Microsoft to Google aggressively advocating the need for more women engineers.
More large tech companies are instituting a slew of programs and perks aimed at keeping women on board, well-represented and satisfied in their work. Some are even gaining reputations as ideal work environments for female techies.
Company Perks and Programs
“Among big technology companies, both Sun and IBM have excellent reputations as places for women to work. We hear nothing but good things about them,” said Ryan.
Perks and programs from five tech giants
We asked five big technology companies what, if any perks, they offer their female staff to get them in the door, and keep them once theyve got them there.
Googles maternity and paternity leave program allows for 75 percent of pay for up to six weeks, a $500 stipend for new parents to spend on take-out meals, adoption assistance, near-site child care centers and a backup child care center.
In addition, Google has high chairs in all of the free cafes on campus, womens rooms in every building for nursing moms, special parking spots for expecting moms, flex-time and conversion to part-time work when it can be arranged.
IBMs flexible work options include: compressed work weeks that allow employees to work fewer than five-day weeks; individualized work schedules including variable start and finish times; unpaid leave of absence of up to three years to manage a personal situation with job security. Parenting falls among the top three reasons employees use this option.
IBM also offers part-time reduced work schedules, working from home and telecommuting up to three days per week.
IBM actively reaches out to young women to encourage them toward careers in math and science through programs in summer camps, campuses and partnerships with several professional organizations, including their own IBM Women in Technology.
Microsoft offers paid parental leave, flexible hours when parents have kids out of school for the summer, new mothers room in most campus buildings and an adoption assistance program.
Sun Microsystems offers a flexible work program called Open Work, which approximately half of its employees globally participate in. More than 13,000 work from home up to two days per week, and more than 2,000 do so over three days per week, or what they call “drop-in” centers.
Many working mothers register for this program, which receives high approval ratings from staff. Though their SEED (Sun Engineering Enrichment and Development) program, Sun works to develop and retain female employees by pairing up promising college recruits with established senior staff.
Sun also has a SunW (Sun Women) Global Inclusion Employee Resource network, a volunteer organization committed to promoting an awareness of womens issues at Sun and fostering networking and mentoring.
Yahoos benefits program allows up to four months of pregnancy disability leave if necessitated by a doctor, though a typical period of disability post-delivery is six to eight weeks. The leaves are generally unpaid unless benefits such as short- or long-term disability are selected. Flex-time availability is at the discretion of individual managers. Recruitment of female employees is folded into Yahoos main recruitment program.