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Female IT professionals cope in a male-dominated industry

By , Network World
September 29, 2003 12:09 AM ET

Network World - SANIBEL, FLA.- As a co-founder of Trend Micro, a $350 million maker of anti-virus and content-filtering products, Eva Chen could be considered one of the most influential women in IT. But when she goes on business trips to Japan with an entourage of software engineers, Chen puts away the business card that lists her title as "chief technology officer and executive vice president" and instead hands out one that reads: "engineering secretary."

The switch is a response to a cultural bias in Japan against women in authority, she said.

"I take engineers into meetings and then pass notes to them for questions I want to ask. They say they're so ashamed," said Chen, who was born in Taiwan and earned a master's degree in business administration and computer science at the University of Dallas.

Chen told of her dual business-card existence during the Executive Women's Forum held earlier this month, attended by about 120 women in IT security. Joyce Brocaglia, president and CEO of recruiting firm Alta Associates, said she organized the forum - which was off-limits to men - to share ideas in a male-dominated profession.

Chen's decision to fade into the background in order to do business in Japan is one way of coping with gender bias. Some large corporations, including General Motors, say that while obstacles facing women are well known, they are still hard to confront.

"In some cultures, males don't like to take direction from females," said Nick Andreou, engineering group manager for collaboration at GM, in a presentation at the recent Auto-Tech conference in Detroit, adding it can be "taboo in business to discuss these uncomfortable subjects."

But like other sensitive topics, such as race and religion, gender discrimination can't be ignored, Andreou said, not only because it's unfair but because it affects business productivity and relations in an increasingly global world.

"You can't erase all these cultural differences," said Oracle Chief Security Officer Mary Ann Davidson at the Executive Women's Forum. She said she's had cause to confront some of the "knuckle-dragging types from one of these cultures."

But she said women have to be self-critical about management failures of their own: "Some women are queen bees - they say, 'I got here the hard way so I'm going to make it hard [on others].' Hopefully, we'll pass that."

Technical fields such as programming appear to have a stronger reputation as a meritocracy - where merit alone is paramount - than the world of the IT salesforce, where myriad social factors might come more into play.

"There's still a lot of the 'good old boy' syndrome out there," said Elaine Price, CEO of CYA Technologies. "I experience this on a daily basis. So the 'tough skin' part is important."

Time and again, women at the conference complained that in order to work in IT consulting and sales, they were told they had to learn golf because this is where business is done. Or they had to hang out in the bar scene drinking or pretend to like sports because this is how customer relationships in a male-dominated world are sealed. "I eventually learned to like golf," said one conference attendee who asked not to be named, adding that she faced a golf-or-go mandate at her company.

By the numbers

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) estimates the number of women professionals at 25.3% out of an IT workforce of 3.6 million workers.

Recruiting and research firm Sheila Greco Associates, which for five years has tracked upper-level IT hires according to gender at 340 large and small companies, figures that 13% of IT vice presidents and CIOs are women. Their salaries are estimated to be about 9% lower than men's, based on available data.

The number of women in IT management hasn't changed much in five years, says Sheila Greco, the firm's president and CEO. But she says there's also a pattern where women in the upper ranks of IT will hire more women than men will - about 25% more.

That women earn lower salaries than men for comparable jobs is not likely because of blatant discrimination per se, but because women often start out in less prestigious jobs that paid less, observers say. Companies tend to offer salaries based on previous compensation, so the more you made before, the more you make the next time.

"Women have a little catching up to do," said Rhonda MacLean, senior vice president and director of corporate information security for Bank of America. "But I'm proud to say I work for an organization that recognizes that."

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