IT Industry

Women in STEM

Parents, don’t let your daughters go into STEM fields!

We’ve heard for years there is a huge gap of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs versus STEM qualified workers.  If we could only encourage girls to go into STEM the workforce issues will all be solved.  Is it really as simple as getting a STEM degree and then companies will clamor after you the rest of your career?

I am a woman with a BS in Computer Science and 25 years’ experience in the IT (Information Technology) industry.  If I am asked by young women for a good career choice, I’ll give them a load of ideas, none of which involve a STEM field.  Careers that have a track record of rewarding and promoting women.  Careers that make it possible to check out for a couple years to have children and jump back in.  Careers that are not packed with so many men that it’s hard to compete and get noticed.  Careers that don’t involve frequently working long workdays and taking middle of the night outage calls.  Careers that don’t involve constant training- all on your own time.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough women educated in STEM fields or smart enough to gain the credentials.  The problem is STEM fields don’t want us and don’t support us.  Understand that.  It’s not that we’re not capable or educated, it’s that we’re not welcomed.

Data suggests that 14% of “technical” workers are female.  Many IT companies try to inflate those numbers by saying their entire workforce is 50% female but please know that most of the female staffed positions are not in technical roles- they’re in Marketing, HR, etc.  There is also a liberal definition of the term “technical workers”.  You could lump in auxiliary roles like Business Analysts and Project Managers.  I prefer to talk about true engineering roles.  Roles that would require a STEM degree and a focus in engineering.  I don’t think those statistics exist.  Per personal experience I would boldly predict that statistics would show only around 2-3% of the technical workforce is female.   Why is that important?  It’s important because when it comes time for job leveling against your peers and decisions on promotions, your competition is those in your same role.  Others in the same engineering role.  A Software Engineer is not competing with a Business Analyst for a promotion.

For women in pure STEM roles, we are outnumbered the minute we hit the workforce.  The minute we are out of college, we start our careers in a “man’s world”.  It’s not that men aren’t kind or friendly, or are even working to hinder us.  It’s that we’re in a “man’s world”.  Think about that.  Picture an old-school country club where men sit around smoking cigars.  The entire country club is set up around their needs and interests.  They may welcome us but from the minute we arrive we feel like we don’t “fit in”.

The IT industry is structured around the typical life of a man.  Either a 20-something man who lives in an apartment with a couple friends or a married man who makes enough money to give his wife the benefit of not having to work.  The IT industry is built around what’s convenient for them and works with their lifestyle.  Their flexibility on working hours, their lesser need to have time in the evening to do things like pick up the kids at daycare, drop the kids at soccer practice or go grocery shopping.  IT is full of male employees who make themselves endlessly disposable to their managers.

Even if a male manager were not to object to a woman leaving work at 5pm sharp to deal with any of the aforementioned tasks, it still has an impact.  There is a team of 15 engineers.  14 of which are men.  Promotion time comes around and everyone has noticed that 14 out of 15 of those engineers were just “more available” than the female engineer.  Not that she got less work done or was less valuable to the team.  The perception was just that she was not as available and devoted to the team.  The promotion goes to a man.  Couple that with a pregnancy and typical 6 months of maternity leave and her career starts into an uncontrollable tailspin.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly met with blatant discrimination in my job.  Many women in IT I know have at least one HR filing or lawsuit in their background.  But what I’m talking about is the more subtle discrimination.  Things that well-meaning men have done without even knowing it.  Like when a manager befriends some engineers on his team because they have so much in common.  They go to lunch together, spend time together outside of work and their relationship evolves into a mentoring role.  Then when promotion time comes around, they chose their mentee.  “No hard feelings” they say.  It’s just that he connected with the management better than you.

Inadvertent discrimination is a term I use to describe how human nature draws us to those like us.  In simpler terms, we tend to like to mentor, promote and hire people who are like us.  It can be that you see your image in them or could be as simple as “they just seem like they would fit into the team better”.  As soon as they make hiring or promotion decisions based on their gut instincts, women in IT have lost.  If the vast majority of IT managers are men (I would contend that number is close to 99%), how are we to ever find our mentor who will see their image in us?

Women, if you are in IT more than 15 years I will guarantee you a long line of jobs with male managers who are grossly less qualified than you.  And I mean grossly.  Shockingly less qualified.  What do they have that you don’t have?  They had a mentor who took them under their wing and promoted them up the management track.  Something you had no hope of ever having.  You will speak up and try to communicate innovative ideas you’ve formulated from your years of experience and men in management perceive you as a know-it-all, uncooperative, a complainer or just plain negative.  Trust me I’ve been called all.  Deep down they know you are a threat to their need to be seen as the most competent and their need to prove they are more entitled to their title.

In the event that our hopes for a promotion are impossible, one might think that women could still make a good career in IT staying lower on the food chain and just working in mid-level Engineering roles.  In theory many female Engineers would be happy with that.  Here’s the problem.  Computer Science is an industry like none other in the speed at which the industry completely changes over.  The Computer industry is in a constant state of transformation.  Keeping up with those changes and keeping yourself current is monumental.

Now this is a conversation I’ve had with many people who will tell me “well I have to keep up to date in my industry too”.  Let me try to put this into perspective.  A doctor might say that they have to constantly keep up to date on new medical technologies and research.  That is true.  To equate that to the Computer Science world, the pace of complete transformation of technology would be akin to the entire human body completely changing every 5-15 years.  It’s not just a matter of learning some medical advances.  It’s a matter of completely relearning the human anatomy.  A doctor would say “well then I’d have to go back through college”.  Exactly.  The Computer Science industry changes at such a level that you nearly have to go back to college every 10 years.  And please know, most companies do not provide training at all.  Engineers are expected to start work day one being productive and stay up to date on everything needed for their job.  Most prepare themselves for these industry changes by doing self-study and teaching themselves new technology after hours.  Spending entire weekends reading and practicing new technology, working long into the night trying to grasp that new concept that just came out.  Companies think it is perfectly valid to have Engineers self-train in this way.

How does this affect women?  Let’s do the math.  Typically you’d get out of college at age 22 and start your career.  You have a good go of being a mid-level developer and feel good about your prospects.  Then after about 10 years new technology alters the technical landscape.  It’s time to retrain.  Doing the math that makes the average woman 32 years old at this point.  Well what’s usually happening with professional women at that age?  It’s just about when they’ve decided to start a family.  Either they’re taking maternity leave or dealing with very young children.  Keep yourself up to date on the newest technology in your free time you say?  Ha!!

Women will muddle through in their current job as long as possible.  Skipping out of work before the men to get the kids at daycare, struggling to keep up with technology advances with no free time.  This usually lasts for 2-3 years, then they crash.  Crash from exhaustion, crash from hopelessness.  A large percentage of women quit IT in their early to mid-30’s.  Some are lucky enough to have husbands who make enough money they can stay home.  Others find a career in a less demanding field and start all over again from the bottom.

So… for that head-scratcher where IT HR departments can’t figure out why women tend to leave IT by their mid-thirties… there it is.  Male-dominated workplace, inadvertent discrimination and no accommodation for a woman’s needs throughout her life.  From the mind of someone who’s lived it and from someone who has seen an endless stream of female colleagues fall to the same fate.

Back to my advice for young girls- STOP getting STEM degrees.  It’s a waste of your money and a waste of your time.  Take that same amazing huge brain, graduate summa cum laude in Education or HR and ride that career to the top.  Maybe one day companies will level the playing field with more than lip service and strive to make real changes and things will improve.  But for now, protect yourself and your future and find a field that’s truly going to support you through your career and through your life.

To be continued… Part 2: How Companies can Keep Women in STEM Fields


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