IT still trying to find what women want

Macquarie University's Mary Sharp was startled to realised recently that the gender gap in her 50-strong team had tilted decisively against women. But as industry observers wrestle with how to right the imbalance, a Gartner analyst has taken a different perspective on the IT gender gap.

The world is flat. Better go out and hire some women.

That seems to be the gist of a recent Gartner report on the gender gap in information technology. According to the consultancy, women -- with their superior communication and listening skills -- are "innately better suited than men" to navigate the new global economy.

Yet, the imbalance of power in IT is rapidly driving women away. In addition, while women control or influence 80% of consumer spending decisions, 90% of IT products and services are designed by men -- a lopsided formula for "going out of business," says Gartner. If organisations don't pay heed to their female technology workforce, Gartner argues, women will take their IT acumen and good ideas elsewhere, meaning the looming IT skills crisis just got 50% worse.

"Let's be frank: Men and women behave, think and operate differently. To pretend otherwise is to ignore fruitful inputs into IT team-building, leadership, global projects, innovation and talent management," reports Gartner analyst Mark Raskino, who authored the study, "Women and Men in IT: Breaking Through Sexual Stereotypes," with analysts Diane Morello and Kathy Harris.

Ahh, the feminine mystique. Aside from the fuzzy math -- how can an IT skills crisis get 50% worse if women don't make up half the IT workforce? -- it's hard to know whether women should applaud or take offence.

Ilene Grossman, vice president of systems and technology at The Bank of New York, said there's no question that men greatly outnumber women in the IT executive ranks. "I was in a meeting last week. These are CIOs or senior executives in technology at all the asset management firms that belong to the Institutional Investors Technology Forum. Of the 150 or so people, there were probably no more than 10 women in the room," Grossman said.

Mary Sharp, director of IT services with Macquarie University, had a similar surprise after a recent staff gathering revealed that her IT team consists of only around 30 percent women. "We had no idea that the numbers were skewed that much," she says.

Having managed similar positions at a host of commercial and government organisations over the past 25 years, Sharp says the challenges of matching women with IT-related fields is nothing new. She herself got into IT management after a decade with global consulting firms showed her that a business analyst role was something she could enjoy long-term.

Although her university IT course had a gender split of around 50/50, the perception of IT as increasingly technical has gradually deterred many women from pursuing IT related careers, Sharp suggests. "When I went through, business analysts was more about going through and designing better means to do something," she explains. "These days, the key parts of IT are very much changed, and it tends to be a lot more technical."

"It's your hardcore technical [work] that's advertised for, and that's possibly one of the reasons a lot of women find this less appealing. But I have 50 people and 30 different position descriptions, and many are completely different - and that's the thing school students don't understand [when choosing university courses]. We have to go back to the school days and be a little more proactive in terms of what high school kids understand to be IT."

To each his (or her) own

Getting more women into IT has become a catchcry for politicians and industry leaders alike, with numerous formal efforts launched in recent years to improve female participation in the industry. Most recently, this month Special Minister of State Gary Nairn renewed the commitment to the Women in IT Executive Mentoring program, a Canberra based mentorship program that's focused on giving women a better sense of the actual opportunities the industry offers.

After years of watching industry groups try to encourage more women to take up IT, however, some analysts are careful to highlight the fact that the industry just needs more skilled people, no matter what their gender. Forrester Research analyst Laurie Orlov, for one, said IT needs more people who listen and communicate effectively, period. "Let us not limit those skills to women," she says. "Guys who don't listen are not very helpful these days."

To be fair, the Gartner study acknowledges that psychologists do not universally agree on many of the gender differences that tests and studies have purported to uncover. Nonetheless, Gartner singles out five gender-based traits CIOs should pay attention to when building IT staffs:

  1. Bilateral brain involvement in listening: Women are apparently better at listening with both the left and right sides of their brains; this has implications for roles like business analyst and team leader.

  2. Spatial visualisation, pattern spotting: Men are better at come complex mental visualisation and pattern spotting; this has implications for certain aspects of engineering roles.

  3. Language: Women are better at a range of language skills, such as verbal fluency. This has implications for analysis of human discourse and writing.

  4. Aggression and risk taking: Men take more risks and are happier doing so openly; implications for innovation, competitiveness.

  5. Social orientation and empathy: Women score better on social skills, understanding others' views; implications for team building, negotiation.

Orlov, who has written extensively on IT careers, said that recent interviews with CIOs done with Forrester analyst Sam Bright found that communication skills are "the differentiator" in hiring or not hiring in IT today.

Says Bright: "One of the things we heard during our conversations with CIOs is that they are willing to train on the technical skills, but if the collaborative skills -- such as, communication, team work, negotiation, ability to tolerate ambiguity -- are missing, it is a much more difficult case to hire someone. You can train someone technically, but changing their personality is a much more difficult job."

Some "forward-looking CIOs," he added, are using behaviour-based interviewing tools during the hiring process, including asking the job candidate to describe a situation where he or she demonstrated communication or negotiation skills.

"You really can't hide in the back office, no matter how technically proficient you are," Bright said. "Some of the CIOs we spoke with were somewhat queasy about whether or not some of their technical people would be able to deal with end users and/or would embarrass them and contribute to the stereotypes and misconceptions about IT in general."

Eenie, meenie, minie, mo

There is little doubt that IT must be doing something wrong when it comes to women. A US study done last year by the University of California found that the proportion of women to men undergraduates interested in computer science is the lowest since the 1970s. The trend is in sharp distinction to other fields, including biology, physical sciences and engineering, where the representation of women has continued to rise.

The Bank of New York's Grossman got into IT by going back to school at night after her children were born "just to get out of the house." "I went down the course list, eenie, meenie, minie, mo, and picked a computer class. I liked it, so I took another semester and when my youngest started nursery I got a job programming. That was 32 years ago."

When she started there were many more women than men on her project, a record-keeping pension system at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. "What I see is that women only go so far at most companies. Here and there will be a woman CIO or a woman COO, with technology and operations responsibility, but by and large women go as high as what more or less I am, group manager. Then starting at division manager and CIO, you still don't see many women."

The middle-aged Grossman has her own ideas as to why this is so. "I still think men are more comfortable with men, and they're the ones who pick who gets promoted, because they are still the CEOs and COOs. When women have more prominent positions on the business side, you'll see more women rise up higher in technology."