Women in the IT Profession


Women have been involved with information technology (IT) since the 19th century, when Ada the Countess of Lovelace served as the first programmer of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. Grace Murray Hopper’s contributions to COBOL and computing several decades ago are considered so significant that an annual conference is held in her honor (see www.gracehopper.org). In fact, the earliest computer programmers tended to be women more often than men (Panteli, Stack & Ramsay, 2001). As the IT field progressed, however, it evolved into what many still view as a male-dominated domain, some say due to its increasing association with power and money (Tapia, Kvasny & Trauth, 2003). Today, women are estimated to make up nearly half of World Wide Web users (Newburger, 2001), but this has apparently not translated into a proportionate participation in IT careers.
IT managers must recruit and retain a skilled and diverse workforce in order to meet the needs of increasingly global enterprises where cross-cultural, heterogeneous workgroups are the norm. However, numerous sources (Computing Research Association, 1999; ITAA, 2003) agree that the proportion of females to males selecting and completing degrees in IT-related fields is declining. Not only are women missing out on career opportunities, the IT profession is also missing potentially valuable alternative perspectives on system design (Woodfield, 2002).
Furthermore, the worldwide digital divide is more extreme for women than men (Hafkin & Taggart, 2001). In many developing countries, women’s access to computers is even more limited than men’s, and Internet usage statistics, where available, suggest that the majority of users are male. However, IT is an important driver for economic development and should provide women with new opportunities to better their circumstances, provided that a variety of challenges, such as technical education and social and political norms, can be addressed (Hafkin & Taggart, 2001).
Even in more developed countries, females face well-documented (Margolis & Fisher, 2002; Von Hellens & Nielsen, 2001) obstacles all along the pipeline, beginning as early as middle school and continuing through college, graduate school, and industry. Solutions to recruiting and retaining women in IT may serve other underrepresented groups as well, making IT classrooms and IT workplaces more congenial and ultimately more productive environments for everyone.


Part of the challenge of recruiting and retaining women in IT stems from the changing nature of IT work. IT is defined for the purpose of this article as an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of job categories that continue to evolve, as hardware, software, and methods continue to increase in sophistication. Traditional professional IT job categories included programmer, systems analyst, system administrator, and software designer. Earlier investigations into women and computing suggested that IT work by its nature was a poor fit for females, seen as solitary and boring, a stereotype that apparently still exists today (AAUW, 2000a). However, as the field has evolved, and as IT has become more integrated into most business organizations and into the work and home lives of many individuals, a wider variety of IT work has emerged. Today, in addition to earlier job titles, IT work also includes software engineer, business analyst, database designer, database administrator, network analyst, network administrator, Web developer, Web engineer, human interface designer, project manager, applications developer, security administrator, and help desk technician.
University curricula have also evolved and expanded to provide formal education, skills, and knowledge suited to these new job types. Entry into the IT field can come from numerous directions, including electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science (CS), several flavors of information systems (IS), and a more narrowly defined type of IT that focuses on fourth-generation language application development and maintenance. A majority of the data and research studies that point to the precipitous decline in women in IT, however, focuses narrowly on computer science and engineering only (Wardle & Burton, 2002).


Early Influences

A growing body of educational research documents a variety of factors that influence female attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors toward computers in K-12 (e.g., AAUW, 2000b; Taggart & O’Gara, 2000; Whitley, 1997; Young, 2000). In addition to general socio-cultural trends that appear to dampen girls’ enthusiasm and self-efficacy regarding math and sciences around middle-school, girls seem to be influenced by:
• low interest in male-oriented computer games;
• teacher, parental, and peer attitudes that stereotype computing as male oriented;
• lack of access to and experience with computers, leading to lower self-efficacy;
• perceived usefulness, or lack thereof, of computers to themselves and to society;
• lack of IT role models and mentors.
These variables have been grouped into two main categories: environmental and individual. Environmental variables are those which make up the context within which career decisions are made, such as school or work, while individual variables are characteristics of individuals, such as aptitudes and preferences (Woszczynski, Myers & Beise, 2003). Both interact to influence the choices and behaviors of individual girls and women (Trauth, 2002).

College, Graduate School, and the IT Workplace

Some of these same factors apply as women move into college and graduate school. Often due to less previous experience with computers and less preparatory coursework, women continue to experience ambivalence about their interest and abilities in IT, in spite of equal performance regarding computer skills. They often encounter hostile academic environments (Margolis & Fisher, 2002; McGrath-Cohoon, 2001), and their career choices are often influenced by work-family balance concerns.
In the workplace, women are employed at lower levels, make less money, are more likely to leave their organization than men (Baroudi & Igbaria, 1994-1995; Igbaria, Parasuraman & Greenhaus, 1997), and may even be channeled into “softer” positions considered more suited to women, and coincidentally have lower status, are lower paid, and are less visible (Panteli et al., 2001). Some of this may be related to the assumption that women tend to be younger, less experienced, and spend less time in the workplace due to opting out of traditional career paths to raise families, preferring part-time or more flexible options when returning to work. The few studies that have controlled for differences in variables such as age, education, and work experience have shown mixed results (Baroudi & Igbaria, 1994-1995; Igbaria et al., 1997).
Academic institutions and business organizations alike are realizing that they need to supplement earlier efforts that focused on recruiting more women into the field with more attention to retaining them, once there, in school and in the workplace (Tapia et al., 2003). Again, it is expected that both environmental and individual variables will interact to determine outcomes for women.

Interventions and Solutions

A growing body of literature is providing a range of useful approaches to addressing these challenges (e.g., Wardle & Burton, 2002). One way of addressing the problem is to focus on individual factors, that is, change the individuals, by changing attitudes, dispelling stereotypes, improving preparation, and increasing experience with computers. Suggestions aimed at K-12 levels and beyond include:
• Providing more (and more equal) access to computing resources.
• Designing girl-friendly games and applications, to encourage more experience with computers which leads to higher self-efficacy.
• Creating videotapes and other positive media images that demonstrate women in professional IT roles, thus changing attitudes.
• Encouraging girls to take more courses that adequately prepare them for IT-related college majors.
Taken to an extreme, this approach implies that in order to succeed in this male-dominated field, women must become more like men. An alternative perspective, then, is to change the environment, by making it less hostile, less masculine, more family friendly, and more accepting of diversity. Interventions that have been suggested and implemented (e.g., AAUW, 2000b) to address environmental factors, at multiple academic levels, include:
• Train teachers to provide more equal access and to reduce stereotyping of computing as a male domain.
• Provide students with female mentors and role models (female faculty members and mentors from industry).
• Create communities, study groups, clubs, and other social supports for female students.
• Broaden the range of computing activities for younger students.
• Develop programs that do not depend on substantial mathematical and scientific background prior to beginning college. Provide bridge opportunities to increase experience, build competency, and improve self-efficacy.
Finally, many business organizations have implemented a variety of programs to address many of the individual and environmental factors listed above (Bentsen, 2000; McCracken, 2000; Taggart & O’Gara, 2000):
• IT training (intra-organizational and community outreach).
• Mentoring programs, support networks, and general diversity training.
• Visible top management support and an external advisory council to promote cultural change.
• Promotion of work/life balance values and programs for women and men.
• Provision of programs that support time management and work-family concerns, such as continuing education, flex-time, day- and elder-care, and concierge services (vs. on-site game tables and sports outings).
• Examination of explicit and implicit reward systems, which may evaluate men differently than women, which may not reward teamwork and communication as valuable leadership skills as much as more traditional definitions of achievement.


When IT workers are compared to other categories of workers, two interesting findings emerge: first, persons with a formal education in IT are less likely to pursue work outside of IT than are persons with formal educations in other areas. Second, the IT workforce contains a large number of people without CS or IS credentials, or even necessarily traditional undergraduate educations (Wardle & Burton, 2002). This situation has likely arisen because IT is a relatively new field, because it has grown rapidly, and because there is a growing need to apply IT to other functional areas, from which these employees come.
A related issue is that a frequently cited source of enrollments in computer science programs (Computing Research Association, 1999) focuses solely on research institutions (defined as those that offer a PhD in Computer Science). PhD-granting programs clearly play an important role in the pipeline by providing female IT academics to serve as role models for women enrolled in college. However, a recent study in Georgia (Randall, Price & Reichgelt, 2003) suggests that: 1) more women (all majors) attend non-PhD-granting state universities and colleges than attend research institutions; 2) CS, IS, and IT degree programs at these state universities and colleges attract a higher percentage of women than do the research institutions; and 3) IS and IT programs attract more women than CS programs. The applied nature of IS/IT programs is likely to be part of the reason that these programs are more attractive than CS programs, given women’s apparent preferences for work that involves social interaction and social benefit (AAUW, 2000a).
A wider range of data needs to be collected from both academia and industry to gain a better, more up-to-date understanding of the status of women in IT. In addition, students, parents, teachers, and the general public need more education about the range of IT programs and jobs available now and in the future, in the interest of dispelling stereotypes and raising awareness of the variety of career paths and choices in IT.
Past literature on the subject of women in IT has included disparate samples from limited populations. As a result, the picture of why women leave the IT field, or choose not to get into it in the first place, is incomplete and fragmented. One limitation in past research is that, like many academic studies, the subjects are most often students. This is due to convenience as well as the assumption that focusing on students will eventually result in changes to the workplace. However, there is a dearth of research in the IT workplace regarding gender and diversity, and more is needed to understand the problem and apply effective solutions.
Finally, although a number of interventions have been suggested and even implemented, little is known about their effectiveness over time. Researchers need to develop studies that analyze their effects over time. Combined quantitative and qualitative analyses of successful techniques that improve recruitment and retention of females in IS should be provided.


Numerous suggestions and guidelines for improving women’s representation in the IT workforce with respect to recruitment and retention have been offered. Recurring themes include the lack of self-confidence regarding computing (which can be alleviated with more experience), lack of pre-college preparation, the need for mentors and role models, the importance of community and study groups, and the need to value both family and work priorities. More systemic solutions would transform the “masculinized” IT academic departments and workplaces to become friendlier, more supportive environments for all workers. A summary of recommendations for IT practitioners, IT educators, and IT researchers toward addressing both individual and environmental factors includes:
1. Apply initiatives that work to recruit and retain women in IT education as tools for managers seeking qualified women for IT positions. These include development of mentoring programs, support networks, and general training on respect for diversity and multiculturalism for all workers.
2. Enhance general business initiatives applied to all women to develop more conducive environments for IT women. Rather than on-site games and sports outings, many women find more appealing practical programs that support time management and work-family concerns, such as continuing education, flex-time, day- and elder-care, and concierge services (Bentsen, 2000). Such programs are likely to increasingly appeal to men as well, as youthful IT workers age, marry, and have children.
3. Get involved in post-secondary education to identify, attract, support, and develop well-qualified women for IT positions. Broaden the definition of IT to include notjust CS, but also IS and related majors, and contribute to continued curriculum development that balances important theoretical foundations with applied, practical application. Such curricula are more likely to appeal to women, who tend to view computers more as useful tools rather than fun toys.
4. Share knowledge about the evolving nature of IT work, particularly with parents, counselors, teenagers, and other influential groups. Narrow stereotypes need to be replaced by the realities of an exciting and socially fulfilling IT career.
Finally, many organizations are beginning to appreciate the value of a newer, more facilitative leadership style that is often associated with women, that includes teamwork, participatory decision making, and interpersonal communication skills. If such behavior is recognized and rewarded, this could help attract and promote more women into the managerial ranks of IT, eventually transforming the IT workplace, and perhaps leading to broader perspectives in software and interface design.


Computer Science (CS): A traditional IT curriculum whose focus is technical and theoretical rather than applied, with emphasis on software creation.
Environmental Variables: The context within which career decisions are made, such as the school and work environments.
Fourth-Generation Language: Business application languages and tools such as database and decision supports tools such as SQL, ACCESS, and EXCEL; ERP and other reporting tools; and Web development environments such as Cold Fusion and Frontpage.
Individual Variables: Characteristics of individuals, such as attitudes and preferences.
Information Systems (IS): A curriculum that integrates technical skills and knowledge with applied business and organizational knowledge. Sometimes found in business schools, other times in schools of science, engineering, or in standalone IT academic units. Variations include Business Information Systems (BIS), Computer Information Systems (CIS), and Management Information Systems (MIS).
Information Technology (IT): (a) An umbrella term that encompasses a range of professional positions requiring at least a baccalaureate degree in Computer Science, Information Systems, or closely related majors. (b) A major that focuses mainly on fourth-generation language application development and maintenance.

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