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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Women and Men in the IT Profession


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Fewer women work in or achieve the same job levels as men in corporate America today. In the IT profession, recent estimates (2006) suggest that women make up only 26% of IT professionals in the U.S. where they're outnumbered by men six to one in leadership positions [3, 6]. What explains these lower levels of professional achievement for women in IT? Unfortunately, few facts are available to inform the answer, though numerous suppositions have been offered, including that women have less innate ability or interest in the "hard" sciences, that their educational experience dissuades them from careers in IT, and that they are simply less comfortable working in what is, and has always been, a predominately male environment. However, the validity of such assumptions has not been tested extensively in the IT arena. What is needed is a large-scale study able to distinguish fact from supposition. Here, we report on such a study we conducted in 2003 that examined the attitudes and experience of 815 male and female IT professionals working in multiple organizations across the U.S. (see the sidebar "Study Respondents and Scales").

We examined several key questions regarding gender differences in IT: Do women share the same motivations or reasons for entering the IT profession as men?; Are women as well socialized as men into the profession?; Do women have the same types of experience as men in the IT work force?; and Do men and women develop similar attitudes regarding the desirability of the profession? They helped pinpoint potential causes for the lower numbers of women in the IT profession. We used a Web-based survey to collect data from a variety of IT professionals from U.S. organizations.

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Motivations, Socialization, Experience

A better understanding of why women are so underrepresented in the IT profession begins with the reasons for a person entering the profession in the first place. For example, common wisdom suggests that men may be more attracted than women to technology-related careers [6]. If true, then men seem more likely to weather inevitable career bumps because they feel a strong association with the work itself. To assess this, we asked our participating IT professionals about the influence a variety of motivators had on their decisions to go into IT, including: love of technology/computers; using state-of-the-art equipment; opportunity for task variety; opportunity for gratifying work; opportunity for advancement; opportunity for job autonomy; job security; level of income; ease of entry into the profession; flexible work hours; and professional prestige.

Our results suggest that men and women share some but not all motivations for entering IT (see Table 1). Both groups cited opportunity for job autonomy, advancement, task variety, professional prestige, income, using state-of-the-art equipment, and gratifying work. There were also notable differences; for example, men were significantly more likely than women to identify "love of technology/computers" as a key motivator. Women, on the other hand, more often indicated that "job security," "ease of entry," and "flexible work hours" were primary reasons for entering the profession. This pattern of results suggests that factors in the work itself are more important in the career decision making of male IT professionals, while factors around the job (such as flexible hours) are more important in the decision making of female IT professionals.

Profession-related socialization refers to individuals' degrees of learning about their chosen profession [2]. For example, in IT, professionals must acquire information about the technical and social aspects of their work in order to be effective. This information is often passed along via socialization agents (such as role models willing to share career and job-related information). Women with less access to role models or lower levels of learning around the technical or social aspects of the profession may be less likely to remain or succeed in the profession, providing a plausible explanation for their underrepresentation. We asked our sample of IT professionals to report on their socialization.

One of the more common aspects of socialization is the degree of comfort an individual might share with other professionals. Socialization is often used to reference an individual's interaction with others in social settings. Role modeling is another important aspect of socialization into a profession, reflecting the assistance received from other professionals in learning the norms of the profession. The nature of IT suggests that confidence in technical skills and comfort with the profession's language are also important to an individual's socialization in the profession.

Men and women in our survey both generally reported a similar level of experience with role models. Women, even in a predominately male work environment did not report a significant difference from men in the influence role models had on their careers in IT. This surprising finding does not support previous assumptions that the lack of females in IT means a lack of role models for women, which was assumed to be a disadvantage for women [1].

Similarly, men and women in the survey reported comparable levels of learning and comfort around the social aspects of the profession despite stereotypes that suggest women are drawn more to social interaction [7]. However, our surveyed male IT professionals also reported stronger socialization with regard to the technical aspects of the profession, including familiarity with its language and confidence concerning their own skills (see Table 2).

Another plausible explanation for women's underrepresentation in IT could be that women have fewer positive experiences once in the profession; for example, female IT professionals may encounter more difficulty balancing work and family [4], possibly encouraging them to leave IT and pursue other careers.

Our findings uncovered only one significant gender difference across a variety of work-related experiences. Female and male IT professionals alike reported similar levels of experience regarding the work-family conflict, feelings of burnout, perceptions of work load, perceptions of fair treatment in job scheduling, assignment of job responsibilities, pay and other rewards, and perceptions of supervisor support related to family issues. They differed in regard to their perceptions of supervisor support related to their careers. This finding indicates that women perceive greater support in meeting career goals, recognizing opportunities, and improving their job performance.

The degree of "affective connection" can also influence how long a person stays in an occupation [9]. Women who feel less positive about the IT profession may be more likely to leave. A lack of attachment to the IT profession may explain why fewer women are in IT careers. To test this lack of attachment we examined three attitudes that reflect an individual's attachment to the IT profession: career satisfaction, professional identification, and intention to leave.

Career satisfaction reflects individuals' general contentment with their chosen careers. We would expect that individuals with high levels of career satisfaction would want to remain in their current professions. Professional identification reflects the degree to which people define themselves in terms of their chosen professions. Despite feelings of strong professional identification, leaving the IT profession would be tantamount to professionals leaving part of themselves behind. Moreover, intention to turnover indicates individual judgments about the likelihood that the individuals will leave the IT profession in the near future.

We found no significant gender differences for these measures of attitude. Male and female IT professionals in the study reported similar levels of satisfaction with their IT careers. They also reported similar (strong) levels of professional identification with the profession. Finally, and perhaps most important to the question at hand, we found no significant gender differences in intention to leave the profession.

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Implications

Our motivation for undertaking this research was to more clearly understand why women are underrepresented in IT. Two general reasons are possible: an "input problem," wherein women do not enter IT, and a "throughput problem," wherein women enter IT but then leave. Our study emphasized the latter. That is, we focused primarily on experience in and attachment to the profession, finding surprisingly little evidence of a difference between the genders.

How should these results be interpreted? While we found few differences between men and women in IT, we do not conclude that there are no gender differences in the treatment and/or experience of all IT workers. The study examined some (not all) work-related experience in a sample of IT professionals. It is possible that if we asked about other types of career experience (such as promotional opportunities) or included a different sample of IT workers, we might have found evidence of differential treatment or experience between male and female professionals.

Similarly, research examining experience at different career stages would inform and supplement our findings. However, the results we report here are based on a large sample of IT professionals, suggesting that the lack of gender differences in our findings should not be dismissed.

A possible interpretation of our results is the IT industry faces more of an "input problem" than a "throughput problem." While men and women do not differ in how they identify with the profession, there is evidence that women enter technology-related professions in lower numbers than men [5]. This is consistent with our findings here that more male IT professionals say they entered the profession because they love technology and computers, and more male IT workers report high levels of comfort with their own technology-related skills. These factors are specific to the IT profession. Female respondents indicated that they entered the profession because it provides benefits like job security, flexible work hours, and ease of entry, factors not specific to the IT profession.

Furthermore, the fact that we found few gender differences in the work experience among IT professionals implies it may be the lower numbers of women entering IT, not the larger number of women leaving IT, that drives the underrepresentation problem. Women in our sample were not significantly different from men in their identification with IT. This suggests that even greater attention is needed on "supply-side" issues (such as young girls' knowledge of computer careers, including computer science, early female identification with IT, and attention to learning styles [8] in computer education).

Meanwhile, the IT workplace appears to be a positive place for female professionals. This is at least the case for the organizations participating in our study, as indicated by the lack of significant difference in role modeling and career-related supervisor support. The fact that women in our sample reported comparable experience and attitudes as those of their male counterparts is good news for a profession that has been and remains male dominated. In our study, women and men were more alike than different in their experience in and attachment to the IT profession.

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References

1. Ahuja, M. Women in the information technology profession: A literature review, synthesis, and research agenda. European Journal of Information Systems 11, 1 (Mar. 2002), 2034.

2. Chao, G., O'Leary-Kelly, A., Wolf, S., Klein, H., and Gardner, P. Organizational socialization: Its content and consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology 79, 5 (1994), 730743.

3. D'Agostino, D. Where are all the women IT leaders? eWeek (Oct. 1, 2003); www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1309599,00.asp.

4. Igbaria, M. and Parasuraman, S. Status report on women and men in the IT workplace. Information Systems Management 14, 3 (1997), 4453.

5. Information Technology Association of America. Untapped Talent: Diversity, Competition, and America's High-Tech Future: Executive Summary (June 21, 2005); findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2003_May_5/ai_101190621.

6. National Center for Woman & Information Technology. NCWIT Scorecard 2007: A Report on the Status of Women in Information Technology; www.ncwit.org/pdf/2007_Scorecard_Web.pdf.

7. Rasmussen, B. and Hapnes, T. Excluding women from the technologies of the future? Futures (Dec. 1991), 11071119.

8. Sax, L. Why Gender Matters. Doubleday Publishing, New York, 2005.

9. Scott, C., Connaughton, S., Diaz-Saenz, H., Maguire, K., Ramirez, R., Richardson, B., Shaw, S., and Morgan, D. The impacts of communication and multiple identifications on intent to leave. Management Communication Quarterly 12, 3 (1999), 400435.

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Authors

Vicki R. McKinney (mckinney.vicki@gmail.com) is an organizational consultant.

Darryl D. Wilson (ddwilson@odu.edu) is an associate professor in the Department of Information Technology and Decision Sciences at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA.

Nita Brooks (nita.brooks@quinnipiac.edu) is an assistant professor in the Information Systems Management Department in the School of Business at Quinnipiac University, Hamden, CT.

Anne O'Leary-Kelly (aokelly@walton.uark.edu) is a professor in the Management Department in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR.

Bill Hardgrave (bhardgrave@walton.uark.edu) is an associate professor in the Information Systems Department of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR.

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1314215.1314229

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Tables

T1Table 1. Motivation for entering the IT profession.

T2Table 2. Survey respondents' socialization, experience, and attitudes.

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