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Women in Tech -- the Good, the Bad, the Hopeful

On a marathon conference call last week, one of my colleagues IM'd me saying she was weary of being mansplained to. I chuckled, thinking of how often that still happens, even when we are senior leaders in our field. She pondered, "I wonder if there is any industry with better gender parity..." and, having Google at the fingertips, I of course offered to check.

Turns out there are several -- some where women are in the majority. Finance, education, and healthcare lead the way. But IT is woefully unbalanced, at about 26% female, as reported by the National Center for Women & IT. And the more depressing part of that number? It's gone down from a high of 36% in the early '90s. That made me stop and think. Why is it getting worse, and what can we do to make it better?

Another depressing statistic? Women received 57% of the bachelor's degrees, but only 18% of the IT degrees. I myself am an accidental IT worker. I graduated with a degree in International Relations and knew I wanted to work running a business. My first job out of college was working for a telecom company, and the team I supervised managed the databases of telephone lines and numbers for western Oregon. Watching my team manually pull reports out of the database -- entering the same keystrokes each time, with the only difference being the name of the exchange -- I figured I could easily write a shell script that would automate these tasks. I was no programming expert, but I'd taken one computer science class in my senior year of college to fulfill a requirement and had learned how to program in Pascal. I wrote the script; it worked like a charm; and they thought I was a technical genius. The rest is history.

In my 30-plus years of working in this industry, I've cheered on other women. I've celebrated victories big and small, and mentored many along the way. We even had a female CIO for a while, and that felt like a huge win. Yet... we've seen the incoming number of women decrease.

In doing some quick research on that topic, I discovered a couple of things. First, the news isn't all bad. Yes, fewer women are gravitating to programming, but they're instead taking to fields like process analysis and user experience more and more. Secondly, one of the reasons women are shying away from programming isn't a lack of interest or talent, but rather to avoid the boy's club mentality that has pervaded the field and can make for an uncomfortable work environment. This is fixable. This doesn't need to be the case.

When I attend a large meeting, conference, or training class, I often do a quick tally of the ratio of women to men. I get excited when the number is over 30%. As I mentioned, things were improving and then shifted. That change has been obvious. I'm fortunate that in my current position, I'm working with some amazing women who provide good moral support and advice. I'm also working with some great guys who are good at teaming with everyone around the table. That being said, the boy's club or good ol' guys network is still prevalent. There are times I don't feel heard in meetings -- not that my volume is too low, but that my comments go ignored while the same ideas then presented by male colleagues get support and approval. That's discouraging and demoralizing, but now I've gotten to the point where I jump back in and remind them that I've just said that same thing. After all, if I don't speak up for myself, who will?

I have the advantage of experience on my side. Earlier in my career, however, I might not have felt confident enough to assert myself. And while I might encourage others to do the same, in the wrong culture doing so could come at a risk. As noted in a Cosmpolitan feature, "What No One Tells You About Working in Tech as a Woman":

I want to direct more young women to this field. That means I need to believe they'll find the community they need to be their best selves and grow in their careers. We're not there yet. Progress is still needed before I would be able to say categorically that the IT industry supports both men and women equally. My hope is that we can get there. My dream was it would have happened already.

Let me know if your experiences have differed. I'd love to hear from you!