July 18, 2005
Hold the “T”: Organizations Need New Ways to Retain Women in the IT Workplace
In the first study of its kind to focus on college-trained IT professional women working in positions from systems analysts to IT project leaders, a team of Penn State researchers have found new evidence that organizations need better policies and programs to foster women in the IT workplace.
The researchers recommend that employers address ways to retain women in those critical moments when they are bearing and caring for young children. These ways could range from supporting part-time work arrangements and job sharing to telecommuting, flexible hours and child-care subsidies.
"Women bring different perspectives and different needs to the workplace, and organizations need to recognize that," said Steve Sawyer, a faculty member in the Penn State School of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and co-researcher on the study. "For instance, women who are discouraged from information networking and mentoring with their co-workers have very different employment outcomes than men."
Mark Wardell, associate professor of labor studies and sociology who led the study, said, "We have known that women are underrepresented in the IT workforce, but the assumption has been that if women have professional IT skills, they can enter the IT workforce and be successful. What our research shows is that it doesn't get any easier for women even after they have their feet in the door."
Drawing on interviews with more than 2,800 IT workers, the researchers found that, despite similar educational backgrounds, women with IT-related degrees earn on average $15,000 less than men in similar positions and are 2.5 times more likely than men to leave the IT workforce.
Among the other findings, while men are slightly more likely to work in the private sector, women are far more likely to work in large organizations with well-defined health benefits. The median size of organizations where women work is four times the median size of organizations where men work, according to the researchers.
Wardell recently presented the findings at the Women, Work & IT Forum at the University of Queensland, Australia. The study is detailed in a paper, "Women in the United States' IT Workforce: Current Status and Issues," authored by Wardell; Sawyer, associate professor of information sciences and technology; Sara Reagor, a Ph.D. student in information sciences and technology; and Jessica Mitory, a master's degree student in labor studies and industrial relations.
Researchers interviewed college graduates with IT-related degrees from five U.S. universities -- two private and three public -- located in the Mid-Atlantic region and on the West Coast, two hot IT labor markets. Participants, who had all graduated since 1988, were asked 120 question in telephone interviews that lasted between 25 minutes and 45 minutes.
The data show that the median salary for men was $80,000; the median salary for women was $65,000 in 2004. The salary of the highest-earning man was $900,000; the salary of the highest-earning woman was $539,000. While men work about two hours more a week than women, that difference doesn't equate to $15,000 a year, Sawyer said.
"The magnitude of the salary differential between men and women is far greater than we expected," Sawyer said. "Because we controlled for similarity in educational preparation, our data makes it clear that this difference is not driven by skill disparities between men and women."
James Thomas, dean of the Penn State School of Information Sciences and Technology, noted, "women graduates of IST are earning on average more than male graduates. Perhaps the trend is for the gap to be closing as new educational programs in IT stress problem solving and the use of technology to make differences in organizations, indeed society."
The interviewees also indicated that women leave the IT workforce in greater numbers than men. About 14 percent of the men dropped out of the field compared to 33.6 percent of the women in the 14 years after college graduation. The researchers speculated that "a combination of family and employer characteristics" make it more difficult for women to raise children and maintain a full-time IT career.
While it is generally accepted that IT as a field demands constant training and education to stay current with advances, only about one-third of the respondents engaged in additional education and skill upgrading. Of that one-third, most were enrolled in formal degree programs rather than certificate programs or seminars and workshops.
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