Women in Technology Leadership | The Problem

The Problem

The under-representation of women in IT persists in the United States despite an increase in the number of women graduating from college with technical degrees (Ahuja, 2002). While a small percentage of women obtain a leadership role in IT, little knowledge exists about how women perceive how they obtained and sustained their positions. This study began with 12 broad questions that were used in the exploration of the lived experiences of 10 women in IT leadership roles in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Using a modified Van Kaam method of phenomenological analysis, the study revealed the following themes: influences to pursue an IT career, feelings about education and experience preparation, feelings about the ideal career path, feelings about career path differences from men, feelings about reasons more men are promoted in IT, feelings about why women are under-represented in IT, feelings about relationships with colleagues, feelings about factors that contributed to success in IT, feelings about job security, and feelings about mentoring. The research findings validated the literature in some areas but revealed some unexpected opportunities for future research in other areas, including a recommended exploration of the difference in titles for female IT leaders when compared to their male counterparts.

The Problem Statement

The general problem is under-representation of women in leadership roles in the IT industry in the United States. Women in both professional and non-professional technology positions are either not advancing in their fields, or are leaving the industry altogether. This phenomenon is happening at a time when the United States Department of Commerce predicts that demand for IT workers will increase by 2.5 million jobs. Dr. Alford’s qualitative phenomenological study investigated the perceived barriers and required skill sets for women seeking to achieve and sustain an IT leadership position at companies in the United States.

A Book that Summarizes Dr. Alford’s Research

Women in I.T. Careers – Why Women Are Leaving the Ranks of I.T. & Why It’s So Important They Stay

Dr. Alford is committed to helping women obtain and sustain leadership roles. This book summarizes Dr. Alford’s dissertation research on this greatly unexplored phenomenon. It identifies the barriers women face by telling the stories of 10 women who hold IT leadership positions, highlighting their triumphs and struggles.

Please purchase to book to support bringing more of Dr. Alford’s research to those that need the insight and strategies.


The Paradox

It is an extremely somber fact that women are under-represented in the IT industry in America. For that reason, this implication will have a substantial impact on our overall global competitiveness. As for the IT industry, it will affect our ability to foster innovations in science and technology.

This notion is not just an opinion I hold as a technology executive. Bill Gates, the creator of Microsoft, was speaking in Saudi Arabia to a group of IT professionals. He noticed that on one side of the room, all of the men sat together, representing four-fifths of the number of people in the room. The remaining one-fifth of the room was comprised of women, all cloaked in black with veils covering their faces.

During the question and answer session, one audience member said that Saudi Arabia aimed to become one of the top 10 countries in the world for technology. “Well,” Gates answered, “if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” After hearing his response, the women broke out cheering.

The thought-provoking statement Gates made can be applied here in America. IT is the fastest growing sector of employment in this country. In 2007, the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), an organization that ensures women are represented in the IT industry, reported in its annual scorecard that over one million IT jobs will be added to the U.S. workforce by the year 2014. Upon writing this book in late 2015, we see that this earlier projection came true. The jobs are there. Yet, women face many challenges unique to them to get these jobs.

And, out of those one million jobs, how many women will hold leadership positions as well?

Some women will advance on and obtain IT leadership roles, but the vast majority of those women will not. Why? The answer to that is plain and simple: Bias still exists in the mostly male-dominated vocation of the IT industry. More disheartening is that the ideals people have of leaders and managers are quite different from the ideals they hold of women.

I’m not saying that all IT management teams see women as incompetent or lesser than men, however, barriers to career progression and their ability-to-achievement gaps have resulted in women leaving IT altogether. While some organizations have implemented various programs to recruit more women, only marginal success has been seen in the percentage of women obtaining IT positions, let alone those that progressed into a leadership role.

Furthermore, the required skill sets and perceived barriers common to women in IT leadership have not been a high priority in research, so we don’t know much about it outside the confines of the corporate IT walls or what we’ve witnessed on our own, which is another reason why I chose to study it at an academic level.

The Barriers Women Face

Under-representation of women in IT leadership roles is a well-documented phenomenon, with women only experiencing small growth in this field. In investigating the root causes of women in IT not achieving the ranks of management at a level that is equal to the percentage of women in other leadership roles, three categories of barriers to career growth for women in IT were found:

  1. Education aspects and family
  2. Corporate cultures
  3. How well they related to others

In the next few chapters, we’ll identify types of organizations and reasons for these biases and provide some background information on organizations and how they think and work before getting into the actual individual summations from my research, but here are some statistics to justify these findings.

Despite an increase in the number of female graduates in technology programs and an overall representation of over 50% in the United States’ professional workforce, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that only 22 percent of women work in technology fields.

Of these women, only 12.4% are on the board of directors at Fortune 500 companies, with less than 1% achieving CEO positions. Even in non-management positions, the Association of Women in Science reported that although women make up more than 29% of all full-time technology jobs, women in technology positions earn only 90% of the salaries of men.

Furthermore, women endure a high level of scrutiny when they do obtain a leadership role. When women are offered leadership roles, it’s quite possible those jobs are in areas that could be considered more precarious than those occupied by men, leading to positions that have more built-in failure potential rates than those coveted by men.

And in spite of what they profess, gender issues do seem to weigh heavily for corporations. For those women that eventually achieved leadership roles within an organization, one colleague of mine said that “it is not really known whether the female directors have been appointed due to their skills, the demand of the organization, or if they have been appointed because of the current external pressure of gender equality.”

Of these 10 women who worked with me on this study, I was quite surprised when talking to those who were undergoing performance reviews that they generally found out that managers attributed their success to “luck or lack of task difficulty” rather than acquired skill.

Luck? Such as in placing your entire education and career on a red or black bet at the roulette table? A piece-of-cake job? Not skills?

This revelation seemed peculiar to me, especially coming from managers at the top of their game. Workplace attitudes has a lot to do with this. Gender does have an impact on leadership potential within organizations, as men are seen as natural leaders and women are not. Workplace culture is another factor in male-dominated organizations where women seek leadership positions.

In fact, the corporate culture within an organization may be the key contributor to a woman’s ability to obtain a leadership position. We could also go back and say that women seeking leadership roles in IT may be at a disadvantage because of earlier attempts to socialize them away from mathematics and science when they were young by family members, peers and even educators.

For women seeking management positions, family demands, bias in performance evaluations, favoritism towards white males, and assignment to female-oriented tasks and markets are also possible contributors to the low numbers of women in IT management.

Women also face challenges in obtaining IT leadership roles because of contradictions between the nurturing nature of women and the anti-social, male-dominated culture of IT. When faced with the challenges of overcoming the barriers to advancement in the organization, some women choose to leave the organization or seek a different career path.

For women who decide to persist and take on the challenge of pursuing a leadership role in IT, many encounter the social organizational barriers of career advancement, career persistence and career choice that are engrained in the culture of the organization.

The struggles of women in organizations show that some women in leadership roles have challenges navigating the unrealistic expectations that lead to negative performance reviews and eventual involuntary separation from the organization. Performance reviews definitely contribute to women having higher attrition rates in IT than men.

The only way to overcome attrition and increase the number of women in IT leadership roles is to increase the number of women in IT in general.

Women in IT perform poorly on performance reviews because they are too few in number in the male-dominated IT industry.

The lack of role models and low percentages of women in the ranks of executive management are also factors impacting the advancement of women in organizations. This argument can be supported by stating that individuals who have stronger identity, competence and growth opportunities thrive when they are coupled with others that share similar racial, gender and social traits.

Training and mentoring are viewed by women as key contributors to their success in obtaining an IT leadership role. In the absence of homophily, where individuals with like interests, gender, group or ethnic affiliations tend to interact in a mutually-supportive manner with one another, it can negatively impact the ability of minority groups (women) to gain any significant support within the organization.

From the information gathered, the potential causes of the under-representation of women in IT could be due to unsupportive educational environments, the lack of mentors, obstructive social norms, unrealistic and stereotypical expectations of women in the workforce, and because women are perceived to be less able to perform technical tasks than men.

And while both men and women have to overcome the same barriers for leadership progression, the barriers for women are much higher and problematic than those experienced by their male counterparts. These are cold hard facts supported by evidence, not opinions.