Whenever a journalist asks whether or why women hate IT, grumps trot out the usual laundry list of cliches and stereotypes about women's supposed genetic disposition against math and science, the lack of role models or the profession's geeky image. It is a problem that more women are not choosing technology careers, but I think we'll solve it only if we start asking the right question: Why should women want to be in IT?
Enterprise IT is a fantastic field for women, especially young women, to consider, especially now. Why? Because much of the work capitalises on women's greatest strengths - communication, collaboration and problem solving - and because a looming worker shortage means the supply-demand balance will tip toward more frenzied recruiting. But ask CIOs whether they think the field is adequately marketed and correctly described, and they admit that it suffers from an outdated image, inadequate promotion, and misperceptions about exactly what the work is.
One of the biggest reasons why women don't choose careers in enterprise IT is that the field is poorly defined. Can anyone say what the heck we are talking about when we say "IT"? Is it the software industry - a la Microsoft, technology consulting, game design, mapping software, database management, hardware or chip design? Or is it the field of professionals who provide the infrastructure, applications, technology operations and strategy that enable today's enterprises to function and change?
Advocates for boosting the number of women in this large and amorphous tech world (including professional organisations like Women in Technology International, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology) inadvertently blur this distinction.
They want to boost the presence and stature of technical women across the board: women in computing, women in science and engineering, and girls who are interested in math and science. To get girls excited about the fun of tech, they talk about science fairs and robotics. For the sake of discussion, let's call that wing of the profession computer engineering.
I agree that attracting more girls and women is a must for the technical workforce that invents new tools, games, devices, software and hardware (to be used and consumed by, among others, women). But this emphasis on programming, robotics, computer science and engineering won't get women interested in working for your IT organisation. In fact, it is exactly that tech focus that obscures the true nature of enterprise IT jobs (which we'll call business technology) and the background and skills necessary to excel at them.
Business technology needs broad-thinking candidates from a broad range of undergraduate and graduate curricula who want to learn how companies - not computers - work; who can work with a global project team, rather than with programming languages; and who can see business process linkages, rather than map out electronic connections.
Meanwhile, the collection of jobs that saddled business technology with its geeky image - network and data centre administration, code maintenance, programming and help desk - may soon be centralised, automated or offloaded to outsourcers. The stereotypically inarticulate men with pocket protectors who hold these jobs - and who defined the image of the profession way back in the '70s - will soon retire en masse (taking with them their pocket protectors).
Now you need business analysts, program managers, vendor managers, relationship managers, information architects or process analysts. These jobs (any of which can lead to CIO) demand employees with excellent communication skills that many of the women you know have: the ability to speak, negotiate, influence others, write, analyse, manage projects or programs, and lead cultural change.
These jobs are not about writing operating systems or learning programming languages. They are about helping companies change the way they work. "Driving changes that help the business generate more revenue, lower cost or improve customer service - cracking these business problems - that's fun!" says June Drewry, CIO of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.
So how do we dispel the stereotype? With better information about what business technology really is, how women of a variety of backgrounds can be and are successful, and finally, with the explicit support and engagement of the 86 percent of top IT executives who are men.
The case for women in business technology
Let's look realistically at the business technology field and why senior women in IT should be promoting this career to young women:
Salaries are going to climb.
There may be as many as 1 million net new IT jobs by 2014, taking into account baby boomer retirement. Enterprises will be desperate to get candidates, and salaries will rise.
Business technology jobs are already among the highest paying in the United States. Furthermore, at the highest levels of the profession, women make the same money as men. According to a recent survey by Sheila Greco Associates, the average base salary for CIOs in the mid-market for both men and women is $150,000 to $200,000.
At Fortune 500 companies it ranges from $450,000 to more than $1.5 million. The median pay for all managers is $105,000, and median base salaries for all business IT jobs have edged up for the first time in several years (although in the middle of the range, women's average salaries are somewhat lower compared to men).
Companies want a diverse workforce.
It makes no sense to have an enterprise where the percentage of women in accounting, sales, service, HR or marketing is demographically representative but is shrinking in IT, whose staff spends all of its time working with these other departments. So recruiters are looking - and will continue to look - for women to fill open IT jobs, even when faced with mostly male applicants.
Meanwhile, says Cheryl Smith, former CIO at McKesson, "Corporate diversity goals will make managers even more willing to promote qualified women once they have recruited them onto the payroll."
Enterprise IT is about business, not just technology. These jobs offer a unique vantage point for learning how companies work, says Patty Morrison, CIO of Motorola.
"I have a liberal arts degree in math and a secondary education degree," says Morrison. "I started out [doing] market analysis for Procter & Gamble about what sells soap, then went into market research, and then into IT." Michelle McKenna, CIO of Universal Orlando, started as a certified public accountant and worked in marketing and sales before moving into IT.
IT jobs enable work-life balance.
Women in senior positions are mobile professionals who can command flexible work schedules. Eileen Gabriel, former CIO of Dick's Sporting Goods, says, "My experience is that if you were talented, you could write your own ticket, and even put some balance in your life. When I was raising my children, I could always work other hours to make up for day hours." Women who have IT jobs that are measured by deliverables - such as requirements analyses, project updates or vendor contract analyses - know that it isn't when or where you do the work, but the work itself that matters most.
How to change IT's image
Both male and female executives need to stop bemoaning the lack of women in IT and start changing the profession's outdated image. We can begin to update this image by promoting a business technology emphasis in the workplace. CIOs and senior managers can help techcentric staffers to learn more about business, enabling them to work more effectively with the other departments in their firms, and identify the career paths that may zigzag to and from the business areas of their firms.
Find new sources of entry-level talent.
Instead of worrying about the low levels of computer science enrollment, it would be a better idea to get the word out to women in undergraduate business schools and liberal arts colleges with business programs. There, we can find young women who are sharp, articulate speakers and writers with the ability to learn about business and technology. Recruit them as interns, and show them from the inside where an enterprise IT career can take them. Assign them mentors who will shepherd them.
Market business technology careers to young women.
As part of the process of promoting the field, recruiting firms and HR departments should profile women business technology executives who can inspire young women to choose a career that is as much or more about business as it is about technology. The material, which should be distributed to high school girls and college freshmen, can highlight the exciting work experiences these women have had.
I have been thinking about what else (besides a brochure and video interview with an IT exec) to put in the kit for high school guidance counselors to help a young girl get excited about the world of business, business processes and change. Perhaps we can give them an information-based problem to solve like organising and recruiting for a new hobby group among registered online club members. That would help our daughters see themselves working in business technology. What do you think would help?
Laurie M. Orlov does research and consulting on business and technology strategy. She is a former vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.