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Women In IT: Is There An Exodus In Progress?

Studies show efforts by governments, non-profits, and enterprises are still not drawing women to IT. In fact, the number of women in the field looks to be dwindling.
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Women are leaving the UK IT field in large numbers, according to a study released this month by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. US data shows similar trends. Despite much talk of diversity from major tech companies and significant initiatives by non-profits and corporations alike, we're losing the battle to get women into IT. This couldn't come at a worse time, as demand for skilled IT workers is increasing.

The UK study, based on data from multiple UK government surveys as well as in-depth telephone interviews with 20 employers, provided perhaps the most depressing piece of data in recent memory: Only 24% of IT workers in the UK are women. That's down from 33% a decade ago.

According to the National Center for Women and IT, the numbers aren't much better in the US. The organization uses a variety of sources to compile its data, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. The organization reported that in 2012, only 26% of IT jobs were held by women. And while women earned 57% of the undergraduate degrees in the US in 2012, only 18% of computer and information science degrees were earned by women that year. Compare this to 1985, when 37% of CS degrees were earned by women.

The number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science declined 64% between 2000 and 2012, according to the National Center for Women and IT.

Worse yet, according to a 2014 study from the Center for Talent Innovation, US women are 45% more likely than men to leave IT once they arrive.

We are neither drawing more women to the field, nor are we keeping them there when they do arrive.

The UK study shows that the IT sector will need 1.2 million more skilled workers by 2022. There are similar problems in the US, with the Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicting that the need for most IT jobs will grow by 25% by 2022.

It isn't as if we aren't trying. Earlier this year, Intel pledged $300 million to diversity efforts. Apple pledged $50 million. Most major companies have paid lip service to the idea. Last year, Intel VP Bernadette Andrietti was quoted in Forbes talking about how concerted efforts of governments to attract women to STEM were going to pay off in the near future.

[ Here are some other ideas for what Apple could do with all its cash. Read Apple Watch Alternatives: 10 Gadgets The Company Should Have Made. ]

There was once a belief that if more women were in the field, more women would feel comfortable there, but since the number in the field is dropping, clearly that isn't going to work out. What are we to do?

Honestly, it appears we're fresh out of ideas. For all the small victories helping women get into IT, we can't cite any measurable trend that shows women are more interested in IT than they used to be. If anything, the opposite seems to be true. This is a real crisis. It isn't merely a diversity issue. It is actually one of survival for enterprises trying to bridge the talent gap and charge headlong into the digital future.