Workplace | Feature

Women in IT

Look around any IT conference and the disparity is obvious: Women are completely outnumbered. Why does IT remain a male-dominated field, and how can more women find success in it?

Today, female students outnumber males on campus, earn a higher number of BA degrees, and surpass men in completing advanced degrees. So there's a certain irony in the fact that executive roles on campus are still dominated by men. And IT is no exception. Women hold only 21.4 percent of the approximately 2,600 executive positions in higher education IT, according to a 2011 report titled "Women Technology Leaders: Gender Issues in Higher Education Information Technology."

"Those women who do seek higher education CIO or other IT leadership roles face a double challenge," wrote Marilyn Drury, the report's author and the director of ITS-Educational Technology at the University of Northern Iowa. "They must overcome barriers related to the traditionally male-dominated higher education organization as well as those related to the traditionally male-dominated IT field."

CT asked three women working in executive positions in IT for their perspectives on the root causes of this imbalance, and what it takes to succeed as a woman in this field.

Our Panelists

Jill Albin-Hill
Jill Albin-Hill is the chief information officer for Dominican University in River Forest, IL, where she also teaches courses in IT for the Brennan School of Business. She has been with Dominican since 2003.

Dana Hoover
Dana Hoover is the assistant CIO for communications and planning at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. She oversees the strategic and daily communications efforts of the Information Technology division.

Pam McQuesten
Pam McQuesten is vice president for information resources and chief information officer at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She has responsibility for the library, scholarship technology, and information technology.

Campus Technology: Why are there so few women in top IT positions in higher ed?

Pam McQuesten: In the late '70s when I got started, the newly emerged, renegade world of microcomputers was open to anyone with a case of techno-lust and interest. Gender was simply not an issue. As technology became more connected to the enterprise and its complexity grew, the field began to more closely resemble the institutional cultures in which it was embedded. In higher education IT, that often translated into a focus on deep technical knowledge and a predominantly male working environment.

Dana Hoover: A number of research articles every year point out how difficult it is for women to rise to the top positions in a number of fields--information technology is no different. As women, I believe that we hurt ourselves by not asking for--or taking--the recognition we deserve for the work we do. In a 2004 article titled "Do Women Lack Ambition?" psychiatrist Anna Fels wrote, "Women refuse to claim a central, purposeful place in their own stories, eagerly shifting the credit elsewhere and shunning recognition."

She's right. I find myself doing this all the time. I am currently running one of the most successful iPad research projects I know of, yet I constantly have to tell myself that it's OK to talk about the project's success during senior staff meetings or in conversations with university officials. It's much more comfortable for me to wait for someone to notice that the project is a success than to ask for that recognition.

Like many women, I want to succeed professionally, and recognition at work is important to me. Over the years, however, I've noticed that I have hesitations and reservations that are common among many women in the workforce. For example, I generally have to push myself out of my comfort zone to ask for perfectly reasonable things that cost money--such as extra resources, opportunities, and special project funding. I didn't realize this until I read Women Don't Ask, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever [2007, Bantam Books]. This book changed my life.

CT: What challenges have you experienced (if any) from being a woman in IT?

Jill Albin-Hill: Right from the start there were very few women in the field, especially on the technical services side of IT. As help desks developed, more women were employed there as an extension of customer service or call center/dispatch. Because of this, I felt as if I had to work hard to prove myself. The competitive spirit from years of playing sports certainly helped drive my need to close more trouble tickets, bill more hours, or take on any project.

I will never forget an incident when I was a desktop support technician, placing a warranty service call with a large computer manufacturer. Having troubleshot the problem to a bad motherboard, after answering the routine questions like make, model, serial number, and error messages, I shared my diagnosis. The male representative was completely dismissive, even saying, "How would you know?"

McQuesten: On a couple of occasions, I have been challenged to prove my technical chops by people who don't understand that being able to ask the right questions is more important in the continually changing world of IT than being the source of the answers.

Snow White and the Seven Dorks

By Lucy Appert

Lucy Appert is director of educational technology, liberal studies program, at New York University. She co-chairs NYU's joint faculty and IT task force directing the NYU Sakai OAE project, and she leads the User Reference Group for the Sakai OAE Community Project.

We call ourselves Snow White and the Seven Dorks--me, the leader of the User Reference Group for Sakai's Open Academic Environment (OAE) project, and the seven male institutional representatives on the project's steering group. When Sneezy, Happy, Grumpy, and gang get together with colleagues, the male-female ratio gets thrown even further out of whack. At last June's Sakai Conference in Los Angeles, a project dinner included 15 guys--and me.

As a "hybrid," an academic who works as a liaison between my program and the university's central IT division, you might think that I would be used to this. But I'm not, because the gender breakdown at NYU's Information Technology Services is actually more balanced than at most institutions. In fact, during the conference in L.A., I couldn't wait for the arrival of my NYU-ITS cohort, so I could stop representing 51 percent of the population all by my lonesome.

While I do get comedic mileage from my "Today's Gender Count" updates that I send from tech conferences, I'm ambivalent. My academic background in gender theory makes me prone to weigh the implications of both the appearances of this imbalance and the work we're doing to undercut them.

Appearances do matter. A female colleague with strong developer skills and an impressive technical résumé argues that it's impossible to know how many women are in the developer community because it is easy to participate virtually and hide behind gender-neutral names, as she does. She keeps a roster of important women in the field and advocates for greater recognition of their efforts. She works from the valid assumption that we are more likely to join communities that include people who look like we do.

Moreover, what we create tends to be influenced by the way we experience the world. It's a particular caution for software developers, whose virtual environments filter so much of life today. To apply the lens of gender theory, software built under the influence of the socially constructed masculine (not to be confused with biologically male) modes would be hierarchical, focused on tightly defined roles and limited sharing of power with users. Voilà! Instructional technology as we know it, particularly the LMS. "Translator" positions like mine exist largely to bridge the gap between the world as instructional software developers experience it and as the academic community of users understand it.

But you can take this kind of thinking only so far. The world of software is evolving into a landscape of collaborative, hub-like platforms into which users load apps that suit their needs, and, when such apps don't exist, build them. The hierarchical world where the developer is king is morphing into a world where developers and users collaborate to build systems that are better for everyone. Ironically, technology is increasingly reflecting what gender theory identifies as socially constructed feminine (not to be confused with biologically female) modes, community and collaboration.

At the dinner with the 15 guys in L.A., I pointed out the rather obvious gender disparity. In response, one of the OAE project's younger developers said, "I never would have noticed that!" I believed him, because I also know from my years of teaching gender theory that the privileges of being a member of a majority are often invisible to those individuals. And I remembered that he also felt part of a minority: At his first Sakai conference the year before, he exclaimed, "Everyone here is so old! How can they possibly make relevant software for students?"

It's a valid question, and one that probably not coincidentally informs the project on which we--the Kid and Snow White--find ourselves collaborating. Ours is instructional technology software on the new model--less hierarchical and more collaborative--one that allows student developers to create apps that shape their educational environment rather than just being led through it.

So, in spite of what our dinners look like, I feel confident that the Dorks, the Kid, and Snow White are part of an important shift that is bringing increasing diversity to the technology landscape. Now that's a happy ending.

CT: How did you decide to pursue a career in technology?

Albin-Hill: Coming out of high school, I thought I wanted to be a math teacher. I knew I'd go to junior college, where my dad taught electronics. The day of freshman orientation, Dad talked me into trying a new program--computer science and computational mathematics. It ended up being the engineering program with computer-programming classes thrown in. When I got some actual hands-on experience during an internship, though, I realized I did not want to be a programmer! So I majored in computer management instead. This still required COBOL programming, but it also exposed me to more computer applications and databases.

Luckily, after that first internship, I was able to continue working summers and breaks for the same organization. I got to try other things, such as helping to pull cable to install a token-ring local area network. I spent a summer visiting remote work sites to help with systems and install software. I loved solving problems and teaching people how to use the systems.

McQuesten: My original undergraduate major was in Radio-Television-Film. I became fascinated by the intersection of technology, communication, and content. In 1978, a dean gave me a microcomputer and asked me to implement computer-assisted instruction. I learned how to program in BASIC and created a set of programs for students to use. The sense of creativity and excitement induced by what could be accomplished with that very personal technology was addicting, and I've been fortunate to enjoy that feeling ever since.

CT: What can/should higher ed do to encourage women to pursue a career path in IT?

Albin-Hill: It is extremely important to bring more visibility to the various career options. Much of the curriculum still revolves around programming. It certainly has a foundational role in teaching step-wise processing and even basic troubleshooting skills, but are we doing enough to link the role of technology with the success of the business? I also believe that many of the future jobs in IT will require excellent project-management skills and the ability to talk with people from the front line to the executive suite.

Hoover: As women leaders in IT, we need to continue to break ground and move up the ladder so that we can encourage other women by example. When someone goes before you, you can see the path and the opportunities. Without that, the landscape can look more opaque than it really is.

In my first job, I was lucky and had a great mentor who really wanted to see me succeed. Since then, I've gone in search of great mentors (men and women) who could help me chart my career. In addition to having a number of incredible mentors at Pepperdine University (CA), I've also had the opportunity to encourage and support the career plans of several men and women I work with daily. I couldn't be prouder when I see them succeed.

McQuesten: For the same reasons many institutions are focusing on STEM programs to increase broad participation by students, we need to focus efforts on encouraging women to move into senior IT roles and supporting them to be successful in those roles.

CT: What advice would you give a young woman who is interested in a career in IT?

Albin-Hill: Go for it! It is a very fulfilling and satisfying career choice. I am absolutely thrilled that I can make a difference every day for someone and help move my institution into the future. What more could a girl ask for?

McQuesten: I would tell her that there is no more important field to be in: Digital technologies are profoundly transforming scholarship, learning, and the operations of our institutions. We need people who are passionate about the opportunities that technology enables for people to envision, create, design, discover, share, and connect with each other in a global academic community.

Hoover: Go for it! My colleagues and I go to work every day to support and promote the technologies that are changing the way students learn, the way faculty advise and teach, and the way staff conduct the business of the university.

Redefining the Challenge

By Regina Kunkle

Regina Kunkle is vice president for state and local/education for NetApp. The company was recently named one of the World's Best Multinational Workplaces by the Great Place to Work Institute and Fortune magazine.

In business and, more specifically, in the business of technology, there is a perception that it is a man's world--that men hold women back and we struggle to get our fair spot at the top. I strongly believe this is a misconception: It is not a battle of the sexes at all. In fact, it has everything to do with the perception of technology as a career field. If young women don't enter the field in the first place, it makes it hard for them to be at the top in later years.

The problem we face is one of supply, not of demand. Years ago, when I took computer science courses, about 40 percent of my classmates were women. We were excited about the new career field and eager to discover what might lie ahead. Fast-forward to today and we see information technology and similar majors with 8 percent to 10 percent female enrollment. The perception of careers in technology has changed from being exciting and interesting to "boring" (to quote my teenage daughter and son). Most of the young women and men I meet think IT professionals sit in cubicles and code all day. Those of us in IT know that this couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that I travel, meet interesting people, help solve serious business challenges, and truly have fun!

So the battle we are really waging is the perception of IT. Layered onto that is the perception of women in IT--or the lack thereof. I passionately believe that it is critical for women leaders in IT to be more visible as role models. We must once again launch the IT career field as exciting and interesting for women.

In my position, I've had the opportunity to work intimately with the best and brightest women leaders in education and IT, partnering with them to make strategic business decisions that improve the way their institutions operate. I know my customers and industry well, and feel honored to be part of a group of women who have "arrived."

As successful women in higher education and IT, we have a responsibility to provide the education and support that will help young women pursue a technology career. I sponsor events on campus for women students and am thrilled that there are always men in attendance, too. There is a real desire for women in the field--unfortunately, many are self-selecting out. Young women need to be aware that some amazing IT companies are hiring--even during recessionary times. When budgets are cut, companies and institutions turn to technology to solve their issues.

My advice to college students is to follow your passion, be it writing, art history, or whatever fulfills you. I strongly urge young women to add courses to their curriculum that allow them to make their education IT-ready. This can mean being an English major and writing for a high-tech firm. Or being an art history major and taking classes on graphic design for the web. Like many other successful women in higher ed IT, my career was not built solely on technology classes. I was previously a lawyer, and am a better writer and speaker because of it. Like many other female executives, I bring a unique, well-rounded background to my current position.

My passion for educational excellence and giving back to the community has pushed me to pursue activities outside my day-to-day responsibilities in ways that build on my career. I believe that if young women are aware of the diversity of these opportunities, a career in higher education IT becomes more appealing and can inspire a new era of successful women moving up the ranks. There is no dramatic battle of the sexes in IT. It is about successful women reaching out to our aspiring women leaders of the future--offering a hand and paving the way.

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