The imbalance between men and women in the workplace is igniting a cultural wildfire in our country. Only dedicated cave dwellers could have missed the news about two Minnesota stalwarts — Senator Al Franken and MPR legend Garrison Keillor — losing their jobs and reputations as women come forward and share stories of sexual impropriety. Franken and Keillor are just the tip of this disturbing crumbling avalanche.
Many have suggested that this sad state of affairs is directly related to the lack of women in senior leadership roles in politics and elsewhere. As a leader in Minnesota's IT industry, I want to acknowledge this problem in my field (both at the state and national level). While shocking stories about sexual assault in the IT industry have not been among the headlines, the treatment of female IT professionals nonetheless is not a great story. Some of us are determined to change that.
First the sobering statistics:
• Women are woefully underrepresented in computing occupations. Among all computer programmers, only 21 percent are women; 13 percent are computer hardware engineers; 18 percent are software developers; 16 percent are network and computer systems administrators; and only 12 percent are computer network architects.
• Female attrition is higher in technology than in science and engineering fields. The "quit rate" for women in high technology is more than twice as high for women (41 percent) than it is for men (17 percent).
• Female attrition rates also are higher in technology than they are in other non-STEM fields. One large-scale study found that after 12 years, approximately 50 percent of women had left their jobs in STEM fields — mostly in computer or engineering.
• Women in STEM fields also were more likely to leave within the first few years of their career than women in non-STEM professions.
These findings come from "Women in Tech: The Facts," a recent report by the National Center for Women & Technology (NCWIT). And contrary to what you might be thinking, research suggests that women are not leaving tech careers for family concerns. So why are they leaving?
NCWIT states "women who left were less likely to report opportunities for training and development, support from a manager, and support for balancing work and other competing responsibilities. They were also more likely to report undermining behavior from managers." The report also reveals that many women leave IT because of "a lack of key creative roles and a sense of being stalled in one's career."
This is a major problem for the IT industry and it's one we need to face head on. Women comprise more than half of the U.S. population. It just makes sense that our industry should be balanced and more reflective of society overall.
Besides helping to fill jobs that have been open for far too long, gender balance in the IT industry would bring fresh perspectives and new approaches. Research and common sense tells us that when men and women work together, assuming a healthy work culture, creativity and problem solving improve.
So how can companies like Intertech begin finding, hiring and promoting well-qualified female IT professionals?
WomenHack, a female-owned company in California, has come up with at least a partial solution. In the past year, WomenHack has organized hiring events in more than 40 cities around the world. In early December, Intertech was proud to sponsor and host a WomenHack hiring event in which 65 candidates and 12 firms (including ours) participated in five-minute "speed" interviews. The idea was to bring experienced female IT professionals together with companies who need their expertise. We are hopeful that many new hires will result, including at our own firm, with experienced women moving into more challenging IT jobs appropriate for their experience and expertise.
For young people just beginning to study computer science at the college level we have created a scholarship through our Intertech Foundation. Two of the first three scholarships have been awarded to remarkable young women who impressed us with their vision and considerable accomplishments at the ripe young age of 18 or 19. Clearly, talent and leadership potential are not confined to a single gender.
We know these are small steps, but they are important nonetheless. Women in technology — and those aspiring to join the profession — deserve the same opportunities as similarly qualified males.
And it only stands to reason that as more women begin working in our industry they will move into more senior roles with more responsibility and opportunity, assuming their employers provide fair and supportive environments that include opportunities for training and advancement. I'm optimistic that these changes will go a long way toward improving what now feels like an inhospitable industry to many female IT professionals.
As men in a profession that's clearly male dominated, we have a great opportunity to change the paradigm that has left women feeling marginalized. We can be the change we wish to see in the world. I hope other IT companies and male IT professionals at all levels will join us.
Tom Salonek is the founder and CEO of Intertech, a Minnesota-based technology consulting and training firm. He is the author of "The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership."