Hit Hard by Recession, Women IT Pros Regroup

There's no doubt that the recession has hammered the IT industry, but in a number of ways, it's hit women harder than their male counterparts.

Angel Gotskind used to think she had it all. Nice pay. Plenty of opportunity for growth. And perhaps the best part—an employer willing to let Gotskind work part time so she could spend more time at home with her 2-year-old daughter.

Fast forward a year, and Gotskinds working climate is vastly different. Laid off from the consulting job in July, Gotskind is actively hunting for work, but part-time flexibility is not in the description of any of the potential job postings coming her way. "Having the best of both worlds is no longer an option in the current market," said Gotskind, formerly a senior IT consultant and project manager based in Chicago.

Theres no doubt that the recession has hammered the IT industry, but in a number of ways, its hit women such as Gotskind harder than their male counterparts. For one thing, positions in project management, quality assurance and application support—the areas where women tend to dominate—are being cut much more severely than highly technical roles such as engineer or network administrator, which are more common to men.

The salary gender gap has also been exacerbated by the downturn, widening to 12 percent last year from 9 percent in 2000, according to IT job board Dice Inc. (See "As Salaries Slump, Women IT Pros Lose Ground.") And one reality of the stagnant IT job market is that the flextime and telecommuting arrangements available over the last few years are largely off the table.

"Its a huge setback for women," said Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of WorldWIT Inc., an online networking community for women in IT, based in Boulder, Colo. "A year ago, if someone had skills, they could work from home. Now, theres something about economic pressure that sends people back to the Henry Ford assembly line model of being in the office full time."

Thats not to say there isnt room for negotiation or that the market for women is completely dire. Hiring professionals report that the number of available positions, particularly those related to network administration, specialized programming for enterprise resource planning and database applications, and IT security roles, are beginning to open up. According to some, contract and consulting work is also a good option in this market for those who can leverage the right contacts.

That approach appears to be working for Bonnie Betts, a Web developer in Woodbridge, Va. Laid off from two positions—at an application service provider and a small Web-based application developer—in the last two years, Betts decided to try consulting projects. Using referrals and relying on networking organizations, online IT communities such as the 15,000-member WorldWIT and participation in vendor user groups, Betts has picked up some choice assignments.

Based on anecdotal evidence, the number of women who, like Betts, are seeking employment in contract work has ballooned with the recession. "My point of reference is an e-mail discussion community with 50,000 women in it," said Ryan. "And Id say that the numbers [of women going into independent consulting work] are rising markedly."

Patti Pfeiffer can attest to that. Pfeiffer, of Mount Laurel, N.J., worked at a large IT consultancy until getting laid off last July. Even with a specialty in financial services and insurance industries and experience with IT projects ranging from risk management to electronic billing applications, she said the market is particularly weak for positions requiring her skills.

For those whove survived the layoffs thus far, experts say that following a few basic tenets can help IT pros of both genders remain secure. First, they suggest seeking continual feedback from management to gauge the ongoing vulnerability of your position. It also makes sense to be proactive about suggesting compromises that could deter a layoff—for example, agreeing to reduced hours or pay, or, conversely, forgoing an agreed-to flexible working arrangement. And, of course, keeping skills up-to-date is key to job security.

As far as whether women stand to regain flexible benefits when the economy picks up steam—or close the salary gap, for that matter—nobodys holding their breath. "It will be a long time before we get to the point where we were in past years," WorldWITs Ryan said. "As long as theres more people looking than there are jobs, I dont see those things coming back quickly."

Beth Stackpole is a free-lance writer living in Newbury, Mass. She can be reached at bstack@stackpolepartners.com. Lisa Vaas contributed to this story.