Women in IT: How deep is the bench?

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Edwards is currently a senior pursuing a bachelor's degree in computer information science at Southern Oregon University. She says there are "never more than four or five" women in the classroom. What female professors she does have tend to be on the business side of the discipline; with one exception, the instructors who teach programming are all male. "They're not anti-female, they're very nice, and they'll help you if you need it," Edwards says. "But I do see a need in computer science for more women. We could use some mentoring."

- Tracy Mayor

That's how it worked for Kathleen Healy-Collier, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in healthcare and is preparing the oral defense of her Ph.D. thesis in health administration at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Healy-Collier is the administrative director -- essentially, the IT director -- at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, which is part of a five-hospital coalition in Memphis. She says that she sees more and more women in healthcare making moves like hers.

"I've been in the industry for 18 years, and when I started out, it was totally male-dominated," says Healy-Collier. "If you go back even further, 30 years, healthcare systems were all 'man's work': in the back room, with paper-based records." The only integrated data systems tended to be financial or production tools, which appealed to a narrow audience. It's no surprise the CIO or IT director role went to a traditional IS or MIS graduate, most often a male.

I've been in the [healthcare] industry for 18 years, and when I started out, it was totally male-dominated. Kathleen Healy-Collier, Le Bonheur Children's Hospital

Now, healthcare is undergoing a massive shift, and healthcare IT systems are changing as well. "Organizations discovered that you can't just put IT on top of medicine; you need an understanding of the underlying critical workflow," Healy-Collier says. More often than not, the people with that clinical background are females.

"Administrators, executives, doctors and nurses -- they are able to connect the dots for more technical people," says Healy-Collier. And they enjoy the work and are drawn to it in the way that wouldn't be true with a back-office IT function, she says. "Clinicians tend to be the ones who understand those systems best but also to be the ones genuinely interested in that kind of interactivity and connectivity."

Xerox's Zahra Langford is one tech employee who enthusiastically embraces the concept of hybrid skill sets. Praised by Vandebroek (her boss's boss) as "an amazing, amazing woman," Langford started out as a theater major and then became interested in set design, which led her to Web design. She did OK for herself freelancing in Silicon Valley until the tech crash of 2002.

At that point, she went back to school "to try and get technical credentials for what I was kind of doing already," she says. She earned an MSI in human-computer interaction from the University of Michigan in 2005 and went to work for Xerox, where she had interned. An interaction designer, she is in her third post at Xerox.

One thing caucus groups do provide is a cross-company network. If you want to be a VP, you need exposure to different parts of the organization. Zahra Langford, Xerox

African-American and openly gay, Langford is a minority within a minority within a minority who on the face of it might seem an odd fit on Xerox's Rochester, N.Y., campus. But the company's range of affinity groups have made her and her partner feel welcome, she says -- and they've helped her develop professionally.

"One thing the caucus groups do provide is a cross-company network," Langford explains. "If you want to be a VP, you need exposure to different parts of the organization, and Xerox is so large, if you just hang out in your own department, you're not going to move forward in a constructive way."

Mentoring from women at the executive level -- Vandebroek, in particular -- makes a difference as well, Langford says. "I had access to Sophie even as an intern. She was very involved in connecting with people and asking them to consider Xerox for the long term. She helped me realize this place is pretty special."

Glass ceiling or sticky floor?

Tina Rourk, CIO of Wyndham Vacation Ownership, oversees about 300 employees and estimates that about 30% of her staff, including two of her four direct reports, are women. Rourk sees strong opportunity for the women, particularly in hospitality, long a female-friendly field.

But at the same time, she shies away from putting too much emphasis on gender, noting that her first priority is always to hire the best candidate for a position. Rourk says that worked for her coming up in the field and she would hope it works for the women coming behind her.

"I knew IT was male-dominated from the outset. That didn't change the decisions that I made," Rourk says. "You have to build relationships -- that's my responsibility, whether it's a male or female colleague."

If anything, Rourk is concerned that women working in the male-dominated environment of IT might unintentionally be backing off when they should be pushing ahead. "Is it the glass ceiling or the sticky floor that's the problem?" she asks rhetorically. "You need to make sure others know what you want; you need to raise your hand for further opportunities. I had to learn to do that."

I knew IT was male-dominated from the outset. That didn't change the decisions that I made. Tina Rourk, Wyndham Vacation Ownership

In the end, that's the message that may resonate most deeply with the newest generation of women in high tech, people like 29-year-old Laura Beth Denker, a senior software engineer who has been in the minority ever since her days at the Rochester Institute of Technology -- but who seemingly pays it no nevermind.

True, Denker works at Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, which skews heavily female and sponsors hacker grants for women interested in programming. But she politely turns her nose up at talk of soft skills or future-forward specialties like communication or business analytics. She is pure programmer and proud of it: Her LinkedIn skill set for Etsy consists of a string of nouns like Apache, Chef, Cobbler, Ganglia, Gearman, Graphite, LDAP, Nagios, PEAR, PECL, Postfix, Racktables, RPM and Yum.

Denker also shrugs off any suggestion that she is a next-gen superstar -- she insists her previous employer, Google, plucked her resume out of a pile from Monster.com.

I wouldn't want anyone looking at me as a female engineer, because I'm an engineer, period. Laura Beth Denker, Etsy

She has studied and worked in male-dominated organizations her whole life -- she estimates her current workgroup's male-to-female ratio is 8-to-1 -- but when asked about future opportunities, she turns the question on its ear.

"It's not really, 'Can I get a job at this company?' -- it's 'Why would I want to work there?' " she explains. "You have to think about yourself and go where you feel comfortable. If people want to be brogrammers or whatever, fine, but they're missing out on more than half the universe."

Despite the persistent lack of gender parity in IT, younger women have managed to absorb a kind of post-gender mindset that anticipates the tech future before it happens.

"I wouldn't want anyone looking at me as a female engineer, because I'm an engineer, period," says Denker. "I've never had a manager, man or woman, who's looked at me as just a female, which is a good thing. My work speaks for me, so look at my work."

Research assistance by Mari Keefe and Sharon Machlis.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

This story, "Women in IT: How deep is the bench?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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