Strategic CIO // Team Building & Staffing
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11/6/2008
06:00 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: Are Tech Employers Breaking Down Gender Barriers?

Before we go seeking legislative help for the so-called IT talent shortage, let's make sure we're really looking for and nurturing talent where it's now readily available.

The election of Barack Obama is indeed a watershed event in our nation's history, no matter your politics. In few places but America could a minority candidate come out of obscurity and rise to the nation's highest office based on the appeal of his ideas and power of his personality, backed by the finances raised in a free market. Of course, one man's election doesn't an idyllic country make, but let's give ourselves some credit for breaking down historical barriers.

Another one of those barriers is gender, and there, too, we're seeing progress. A record 94 women served during the 110th U.S. Congress, and the candidacy of Sarah Palin and near-candidacy of Hillary Clinton provide evidence that a person's gender, even at the very highest political echelons, is far less relevant today than it was even four years ago.

In business circles, such progress is mixed. Women still earn less than men for "comparable" work, and they're still having trouble breaking into the highest executive positions. A study released in February by Catalyst, an organization for professional women, found that women in technical fields were "relatively satisfied with their jobs and workplace cultures," but it also revealed that they were "less satisfied with their interactions with supervisors and their companies' approaches to fairness" compared with other workers. "Furthermore, failure of companies and supervisors to provide employees with opportunities to speak up and participate in decision-making processes posed another significant hurdle for technical women," asserts the study, sponsored by Cisco, Dell, and IBM.

Female CIOs are still the exception, but they're growing in number and influence. Among InformationWeek 500 companies, about 75--or 15%--have a woman in the top IT position, including Kathy Owen at No. 5 company Unum, Marina Levinson at No. 14 NetApp, Beth S. Perlman at No. 17 Constellation Energy, and Leslie Jones at No. 20 Motorola. In comparison, the InformationWeek 500 had about 45 female CIOs just five years ago.

A quick analysis of some of the nation's leading tech vendors shows that women account for 21% of the senior execs at Hewlett-Packard, 18% at Oracle, 13% at IBM and Google, 11% at Cisco and Microsoft, and 0% at Dell. Dell, at a minimum, has some explaining to do, especially as it's the target of a class-action lawsuit filed Oct. 29 by four women, all former managers in its HR department, alleging that the company systematically blocks women from entering its top executive ranks. In the filing, Bethany Riches, one of the former managers, claims her supervisor described the top ranks as "one of the toughest old-boy networks in Dell" and later told her she had no prospects for advancement. A Dell spokesman says "the claims in the suit are without merit."

Before we indict Dell and other tech employers for maintaining male-dominated work environments, let's look in the mirror: How many of our companies have "enough" women in the uppermost positions of authority? Do we make equal opportunity employment and promotion--on all fronts--a priority?

This is not a call for government-mandated employment quotas or equal pay. And it's certainly not a call for politically correct encounters. One session at a recent, top-notch conference for women in technology urged attendees to "develop leadership presence by learning how to orient from their highest creative potential, transform self-sabotaging thought patterns, make powerful requests and declines, and declare an irresistible future!" Are they kidding? The Stuart Smalley jargon of "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!" doesn't cut it in the business world.

This is a call, however, for self-evaluation and fairness. We're all aware of the so-called IT talent shortage. Before we go running to our congressman (or congresswoman) for legislative and regulatory help, let's make sure we're really looking for and nurturing talent where it's now readily available.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
rpreston@techweb.com

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