Asking Provocative Questions

Last week Ben Worthen, who writes the Wall Street Journal’s Business Technology blog, posted a provocatively titled piece called, “Do Women Hate IT?” NCWIT provided some statistics and a few quotes for his post, which he ended with the question, “Why do you think women aren’t pursuing IT careers?”

Well, the comments started flying. If you want a quick read on the issues currently facing women in information technology, go take a look at what some of those comments say. They include some weary stereotypes, which I will paraphrase here…

“Women don’t like IT.”
How do you know? Although the range of interest in technical endeavors is just as great among individual boys as it is among individual girls, girls are still less encouraged to pursue these endeavors and receive less exposure to them. Many women who do like IT don’t find the IT work environment terribly friendly, and leave as a result. If women aren’t standing on an equal playing field, how can you measure whether they have the desire to be equal players?

“There are no jobs in IT.”
Wrong. Dr. William Aspray, member of the ACM Job Migration Task Force, says “there has been a 17 percent increase in IT jobs in the United States between 1999, the height of the dot-com boom, and 2004 – even though this was a half-decade of increasingly frenetic off-shoring activity”. Department of Labor estimates forecast that more than one million jobs will be added to the IT workforce by 2014.

“Women aren’t smart enough.”
This type of statement is similar to the statement about women not having the “right” types of brains to work in IT. Well, women receive almost half of all undergraduate math degrees and are approaching parity in medical school. I don’t know about you, but I suspect many of these women are plenty “smart enough” to work in IT.

Countering these arguments, however, is not enough: we need to move this tired discussion forward. Asking a provocative question like whether women hate IT is almost a moot point. While we debate the answer, our country’s competitive position in the global economy is slipping away.

The impact of information technology on our lives has never been so pervasive or so important to our health and prosperity. To assign or accept gender stereotypes about who’s qualified to create the information technology of the future squanders what should be one of our greatest sources of strength: our diverse workforce.

I’ve run large IT R&D organizations and I can tell you from experience that innovation is a creative process. Participants bring their life experiences to the table, so diversity in participants means a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and solutions.

The answer to our national competitiveness dilemma is not proving who is better-suited for careers in information technology; the answer is engaging and educating our overlooked talent pool, the large number of women and under-represented minorities in this country, whose current participation is so low. We need to invest in research and computing education, but we also need to foster and value diverse organizational environments in which technical innovation can truly thrive.

“Why Do Women Hate IT?” Well, wouldn’t you, if you were a technical woman and had to work with some of the folks posting comments like those above on Mr. Worthen’s blog? What if one of them was your boss? Now there’s a really provocative thought.

Lucy Sanders is a former executive at AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Bell Labs, and Avaya Labs. She received the Bell Labs Fellow award in 1996 and holds six IT patents.

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