Women in IT: How deep is the bench?

Superstar women lead IT at some of the biggest global corporations, yet the path to the top isn't clear for the next generation.

Ursula Burns at Xerox. Ellen Kullman at DuPont. Ginni Rometty at IBM. And most famously, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, with a baby on board and a Twitterstream in tow.

Each time a female engineer takes the helm at a prominent technology company, the industry breathes a sigh of relief and pats itself on the back. See? Self-proclaimed "girl geeks" like Mayer really can survive and thrive in IT and research.

Add to that the fact that more female CIOs than ever are leading the tech charge at Fortune 500 companies like Exxon Mobil, Boeing, Dell, Walmart, Bank of America, Xerox and GE, and it's easy to conclude that change really has come to one of the last male-dominated boxes on the corporate org chart.

Or maybe not. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 women made up 57% of the country's professional workforce but held just 25% of the jobs in professional computing occupations. And those Fortune 500 female CIOs? They still account for just 12% of the total, according to data from Boardroom Insider.

The persistently lopsided male-to-female ratios distress pioneering women like Nora Denzel, a former senior vice president at Intuit and Hewlett-Packard who graduated with a B.S. in computer science in 1984.

At the time, Denzel had no idea that the charge she was leading would wither behind her. "In the early '80s, the whole space thing was going on, PCs had just come out, the occupational projections were saying there was going to be such a shortage of talent," she recounts. "I wouldn't go as far as saying computer science was sexy, but there was that sense that the sky was the limit."

Flash forward almost 30 years to find Denzel, currently a member of the board of directors at the nonprofit Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, delivering the keynote address at the institute's recent 2012 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Baltimore.

The theme of her talk: "Are we there yet?" Her short answer: No.

"We were making progress until the mid '80s -- the supply of women peaked at 37% in '85. None of us knew that by 2010, only 18% of CS undergrads would be women," she laments. "The numbers moved, but in reverse. It's a revolution in reverse."

The numbers moved, but in reverse. It's a revolution in reverse. Nora Denzel, Anita Borg Institute

Should corporations care if their IT workforce lacks women? Beyond check-the-box feel-goodism, is there any ROI in dedicating resources to cultivate, recruit, mentor and promote women in technical roles?

Absolutely, says Sophie Vandebroek, CTO at Xerox, which also has a female CEO and a female CIO. Female-friendly policies give an organization access to the full range of talent available in the marketplace. "It's hard enough finding people who meet our standards -- exceptional Ph.D.s and engineers, especially U.S. citizens," she says. "Without a diverse organization, we're not going to be able to attract the best person for the job."

In addition to her CTO role, Vandebroek is president of the Xerox Innovation Group, which oversees Xerox's research centers in Europe, Asia, Canada and the U.S., including the storied Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

"We have no problem hiring excellent people at PARC," she says with a laugh, "but how do we convince talented engineers to move to our Rochester, N.Y., facility?" Xerox's diversity initiatives are a key recruiting tool. "Nobody wants to be the only woman, or the only Hispanic, or young person, or the one gay person. They want to see others who look and act like them in the workplace."

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Why hire women in IT? Computerworld editor Tracy Mayor interviews Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek about the ROI of a diverse workforce and its benefits to the bottom line.

Beyond making it easier to recruit other women, adding women to engineering and design teams makes those teams better able to address the needs of Xerox's customer base, which worldwide includes more women than men. Just one example: Women are more likely to be users of the company's multifunction office devices, says Vandebroek.

Overall, heterogeneous workgroups are more innovative, creative and productive than "just a bunch of people all thinking the same way" -- a crucial concern for organizations like Xerox, where innovation has a direct impact on the bottom line, says Vandebroek.

Because her company has for many years sponsored large and active caucuses that support women at Xerox, as well as subgroups for technical women and women of color, among other minorities, Vandebroek feels she does have a deep bench from which to promote future female talent. (For other likely candidates, see the companies with the highest percentages of women on Computerworld's 2012 list of 100 Best Places To Work in IT.)

I just led a panel on how to become a developer. If more than five people in the room were women, I'd be surprised. Debbie Madden, Cyrus Innovation

But that's not the case at every organization, she says -- and that's an assessment shared by a number of young, midcareer and executive-level tech women. Their general takeaway: IT has come a long way in its attitudes toward women, but there's still a long way to go.

Midcareer retention

As someone who has been recruiting developers and other tech employees in the New York area for the past 17 years, Debbie Madden counts herself among the ranks of senior technical women who are dismayed by the glacial pace of change.

"I just led a panel on how to become a developer. There were 150 people in the room, and if more than five of them were women, I'd be surprised," says Madden, executive vice president at software developer Cyrus Innovation. "When I was majoring in engineering, there was a lot of hope that women were finally starting to take on more of these STEM degrees. People were very hopeful, but I'm not seeing that now."

Madden worries that women might be taking themselves out of the mix early on in the game over work-life concerns. "One big problem is retention," she says. "Many women that I know, even when they're in their 20s, they choose careers that are going to allow them to have children. But when you're a developer working on a project, you need to be there five long days a week."

The up-all-night "brogrammer" culture at some startups doesn't help, she says. "No one's intentionally preventing female engineers from working at those companies; it's just an overall culture that's not appealing to a lot of women."

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Career Development

Footsteps to follow

Having come up through the ranks when IT was not particularly tuned in to family concerns, Marina Lubinsky, senior vice president and CIO at hotelier Oakwood Worldwide, likes to keep an eye out for employees who may be in need of support with work-life challenges. Her concern stems directly from her own experiences in the early 1990s.

"I was with Arthur Andersen when I started a family. At that time, you were either on or off the track." -- Marina Lubinsky, Oakwood Worldwide

"I was in Europe with Arthur Andersen, which is now Accenture, when I started a family -- twin boys," Lubinsky relates. "At that time, you were either on the track or off the track. The company was closed off on what to do with me, and I was pretty much closed off to any alternatives as well."

Lubinsky left, and worked at Disney and AIG before landing at Oakwood, where in 2009, she became the first female on its executive committee. "Now it's 50-50," she says. "Three of us are women."

As for the women in her organization, Lubinsky says, "We have conversations: 'How did you get where you are?' 'What struggles did you go through?' For 20 years now, I've juggled. I've been through it all."

Several years ago, when Joanna Tang, a systems architect at Oakwood, was thinking of resigning to spend more time with her two young children, Lubinsky offered her the opportunity to work from home.

"After I had my second child, I was feeling the need to be at home more," says Tang. "Marina was very supportive. She encouraged me to stay, and gave me the option to choose my time in the office." Having a manager who'd been through the same dilemmas helped. "I did think, well, if it worked out for [Lubinsky], it can work out for me," she says.

- Tracy Mayor

Jennifer Klopotoski, a Windows systems administrator team lead, has had few female role models in her education and career, but she feels well supported by her company, Ebsco Publishing, an Ipswich, Mass., supplier of databases and e-books.

In a computer science class at Boston's Northeastern University, she recalls being the only woman in a class of 30. "But I wasn't intimidated by that," she says. "I used it to my advantage to build on my strengths."

Klopotoski is one of three females in a 35-member department, and has no women directly up the ladder from her. But early on, she had a good male mentor who recognized her ambition. "I am definitely in a distinct minority, but I'm comfortable with that; it's part of my personality," she says. "I feel the doors are open to me at Ebsco. If you want to get ahead, you'll get there eventually."

It's difficult [having kids] in the tech field -- you can't just drop what you're doing at 3 o'clock if something is broken. Jennifer Klopotoski, Ebsco Publishing

Her current roadblock is the work-life balance that many parents with young children struggle with. Klopotoski and her husband, a network manager at a different company, can sometimes find themselves debating over whose network crisis is more important as they figure out which parent can leave work to pick up their two kids, ages 4 and 18 months. "It's difficult in the tech field -- you can't just drop what you're doing at 3 o'clock if something is broken."

It's not lost on her that Yahoo's Mayer made it to the top before starting a family. "Having kids and now wanting to advance, it's a reverse kind of climb," Klopotoski acknowledges. "Am I going to be able to attain what I want? Maybe, but it's going to take five or 10 years."

Do shifting skill sets favor women?

Multiple nonprofits have sprung up, many sponsored by tech corporations, to expose high school girls to programming, app development and more. The list includes The Technovation Challenge sponsored by nonprofit Iridescent, DigiGirlz classes from Microsoft, and Girls Who Code, backed by Google, eBay, General Electric and Twitter. The hope is that these efforts will result in more women studying science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM fields -- in college and graduate school.

In the meantime, there are indications that the shifting nature of high-tech employment may be working in favor of women.

As Denzel, who first made her mark in storage and later in the burgeoning field of big data, notes wryly, "The closer you are to the processor, the more male-dominated this already male-dominated field becomes."

In contrast, the industry shift away from nuts and bolts and toward hybrid skill sets -- including higher-level analytics, process and project management, and user-centric social and mobile computing -- could open up opportunities for women to move laterally into tech departments from other specialties.

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Guy-centric classrooms

A look at the supply chain for IT professionals -- high schools, colleges, universities and graduate schools -- suggests that the gap between top-placed female IT professionals and those coming up the ranks isn't likely to close anytime soon.

That's according to an analysis of educational data from various sources by The National Center for Women & Information Technology. Among other things, the group found that, in 2011, a majority (56%) of the students who took Advanced Placement tests were female, as were 46% of those who took the AP calculus test, but women accounted for just 19% of those who took the AP computer science exam.

Those ratios hold true in college: 57% of students earning an undergraduate degree in 2010 were women, but women made up only 18% of those majoring in computer and information sciences. That's not a one-year blip: The NCWIT found that there was a 79% drop in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science between 2000 and 2011.

"If we could say to girls, 'You're going to try this out,' they might discover they really love programming." -- Sara Edwards, Asante Health System

Sara Edwards, an applications analyst at Asante Health System in Medford, Ore., who initially crossed over to IT via a clerical job in healthcare, believes the solution lies in changing how computer science is presented to female students in high school and college.

At her high school, only students who excelled in math, specifically calculus, were encouraged to sign up for the one programming class, which was an elective. "Computer science programs -- all STEM classes, I think -- need to be mandatory, not electives. If we could say to girls, 'You're going to try this out,' and get good teachers that make it fun for them, they might discover they really love programming," Edwards says. "You don't know what you're going to love until you do it."

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