Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/10/2008 7:36:20 PM ET 2008-02-11T00:36:20

When it comes to technology, female consumers can’t get too mad when they surf a Web site that’s hard to navigate or their cell phones aren’t designed to cradle easily between their shoulder and ear.

Why? Because there’s a high probability there were few if any women on the technical team that designed that Web site or wireless phone.

Women have not been flocking to the profession of information technology, even though women are bigger consumers of technology than men.

In fact, the number of women in the IT field and those who are heading to college to pursue technology degrees is actually on the decline.

Renee Davias, a software-applications director at a New York-based law firm, sees this every day. Often she wishes there were more women in her IT group and in the profession overall. One of only two women in an 11-member development team, she likes working with her male colleagues but believes another female or two could help the team dynamic.

"With the men sometimes, they’re trying to see who can pee the highest on the hydrant," she says, speaking metaphorically, of course. "Women are much more matter-of-fact, more collaborative."

Davias, who is also president of the Rochester Chapter of the Association of Women in Computing, is doing what she can encourage women to get into the technology field, even speaking to Girl Scouts about the profession.

But her desire to have more women in the technology field may have to remain a dream, at least for the foreseeable future.

Women control more than 83 percent of all consumer purchases, including 66 percent of home computers, and they outpace men when it comes to buying consumer electronics, but they hold only 27 percent of computer-related jobs, according to a study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

And from 1983 to 2006, the study found, the number of computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded to women plummeted to 21 percent from 36 percent.

"It’s been a steady decline since the 1980s," says Lucy Sanders, CEO of the center. "The participation of women in IT has never been strikingly high, but now it’s getting worse."

What’s driving the decline, explains Sanders, is the way computer science is taught in schools and how society depicts the profession "as geeky and nerdy." There’s a disconnect between the technical and how we use technology every day, she adds.

So, do we really need more women in IT?

"Yes," says Bill Hardgrave, author of a recent article on the topic for a trade magazine.

"One of the biggest criticisms of technology today is that user interfaces are poor," explains Hardgrave, a professor of information systems at the University of Arkansas. Men, he says, largely don’t do a great job making the products easier to use because they concentrate more on the "geek" factor of technology. "I think women have more of an intuitive sense of designing interfaces."

Rebecca Berger, a senior programmer for Coastal Contacts, which sells vision-care products online, says she loves being one of the only women in her IT group.

"I don’t have to deal with the dynamics of working with women, dealing with cattiness and hormones," she says. But, she admits, "It would be nice to have someone to turn to sometimes who thinks like me."

Sanders, of the Center for Women and Information Technology, believes it’s all about diversity of thought and how diversity leads to a better product. "Anything created by a homogenous group isn’t as robust," she explains.

Suzanne Gordon, chief information officer of database software company SAS, is disheartened by the growing lack of women in IT.

She graduated from college in the 1970s, and she says there seemed to be more women going into the field back then. “There were no preconceived notions of who went into it,” she says.

But now, she adds, IT has come to be thought of as a field for men, especially when it comes to the more technical jobs, where women make up only 10 percent at SAS. On the business side, for things like payroll and accounts receivable, and on the help desk, there are plenty of women at the company, about 50 percent of the total.

“Where we have difficulty finding women is more on the hardware side, working more directly with machinery like UNIX and PC boxes and networks,” she says. And that’s a problem, she continues, because “the groups work much better when at least one woman is in the group. They bring a different perspective and viewpoint.”

In one particular team at SAS that has one woman, she explains, "The whole group is different when she’s not there. She has the personality. The guys in that group are more quiet nerds."

While companies cannot legally base their hiring decisions on gender, many IT hiring managers say they would be very open to considering qualified women, if only there were more of them.

"Really my goal is to hire enthusiastic, bright people, regardless of gender," says Heather Tipple, director of information systems at car-buying Web site Edmunds.com. "Unfortunately, I rarely see resumes from qualified female candidates. I probably see one resume from a female per every 10 I see from a man."

If you’re thinking about giving the IT field a try, the first thing to do is brush aside any preconceived notions you have about the profession. With computer and mathematical sciences jobs expected to grow faster than any other professional occupations through 2016, at nearly 25 percent, according to the Department of Labor, it may be dumb to rule the field  out.

Barbara Viola, president of the Long Island Chapter of the Association of IT Professionals, offers some advice:

  • Get an internship while in high school or college to figure out if it’s something you’d be interested in as a long-term career, and gain some experience.
  • Many people start out in IT careers paying their dues in technical support, helping customers and employees with technical issues, and learning a lot in the process.
  • There are lots of opportunities to work in IT at companies and organizations that are not computer companies. Civil service and government jobs can be a great place to be involved in cutting-edge technology.
  • The one constant in IT is that employees need to constantly udatie their skills, so choose a path and find out what kind of certification you’ll need.

For career changers, Judy Murrah, senior director of Motorola IT, suggests playing up your expertise. If you have been in nursing, a company with a health care focus might love to benefit from your real medical world knowledge, she says.

Murrah sings the praises of a computer career for women because of the prevalence of family-friendly policies, opportunities to work from home, and even onsite day care at some larger firms like Motorola.

"And another thing I like about IT is it’s a very measurable job," she adds. "All that men and women stuff can be neutralized by that fact. Are you doing the job or not? Are the systems going in with quality or not?"

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