Female IT professionals cope in male-dominated industry

SANIBEL, FLORIDA (09/26/2003) - As a co-founder of Trend Micro Inc., a US$350 million maker of anti-virus and content-filtering products, Eva Chen could be considered one of the most influential women in IT. But when she goes on business trips to Japan with an entourage of software engineers, Chen puts away the business card that lists her title as "chief technology officer and executive vice president" and instead hands out one that reads: "engineering secretary."

The switch is a response to a cultural bias in Japan against women in authority, she said.

"I take engineers into meetings and then pass notes to them for questions I want to ask. They say they're so ashamed," said Chen, who was born in Taiwan and earned a master's degree in business administration and computer science at the University of Dallas.

Chen told of her dual business-card existence during the Executive Women's Forum held earlier this month, attended by about 120 women in IT security. Joyce Brocaglia, president and CEO of recruiting firm Alta Associates, said she organized the forum - which was off-limits to men - to share ideas in a male-dominated profession.

Chen's decision to fade into the background in order to do business in Japan is one way of coping with gender bias. Some large corporations, including General Motors, say that while obstacles facing women are well known, they are still hard to confront.

"In some cultures, males don't like to take direction from females," said Nick Andreou, engineering group manager for collaboration at General Motors Corp., in a presentation at the recent Auto-Tech conference in Detroit, adding it can be "taboo in business to discuss these uncomfortable subjects."

But like other sensitive topics, such as race and religion, gender discrimination can't be ignored, Andreou said, not only because it's unfair but because it affects business productivity and relations in an increasingly global world.

"You can't erase all these cultural differences," said Oracle Corp. Chief Security Officer Mary Ann Davidson at the Executive Women's Forum. She said she's had cause to confront some of the "knuckle-dragging types from one of these cultures."

But she said women have to be self-critical about management failures of their own: "Some women are queen bees - they say, 'I got here the hard way so I'm going to make it hard (on others).' Hopefully, we'll pass that."

Technical fields such as programming appear to have a stronger reputation as a meritocracy - where merit alone is paramount - than the world of the IT salesforce, where myriad social factors might come more into play.

"There's still a lot of the 'good old boy' syndrome out there," said Elaine Price, CEO of CYA Technologies Inc. "I experience this on a daily basis. So the 'tough skin' part is important."

Time and again, women at the conference complained that in order to work in IT consulting and sales, they were told they had to learn golf because this is where business is done. Or they had to hang out in the bar scene drinking or pretend to like sports because this is how customer relationships in a male-dominated world are sealed. "I eventually learned to like golf," said one conference attendee who asked not to be named, adding that she faced a golf-or-go mandate at her company.

By the numbers

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) estimates the number of women professionals at 25.3 percent out of an IT workforce of 3.6 million workers.

Recruiting and research firm Sheila Greco Associates, which for five years has tracked upper-level IT hires according to gender at 340 large and small companies, figures that 13 percent of IT vice presidents and CIOs are women. Their salaries are estimated to be about 9 percent lower than men's, based on available data.

The number of women in IT management hasn't changed much in five years, says Sheila Greco, the firm's president and CEO. But she says there's also a pattern where women in the upper ranks of IT will hire more women than men will - about 25 percent more.

That women earn lower salaries than men for comparable jobs is not likely because of blatant discrimination per se, but because women often start out in less prestigious jobs that paid less, observers say. Companies tend to offer salaries based on previous compensation, so the more you made before, the more you make the next time.

"Women have a little catching up to do," said Rhonda MacLean, senior vice president and director of corporate information security for Bank of America. "But I'm proud to say I work for an organization that recognizes that."

Surviving in a man's world

While the event in Florida contained plenty of the same kind of tech talk you'd find at any IT-related conference, some of strongest comments pertained to how to survive and thrive in a man's world.

"Guys keep score. They like stats. So if you put an idea on the table, measure it. Do it in numbers or they'll just blow you off," said Peggy Weigle, CEO at security firm Sanctum, during a panel discussion.

While Weigle counts many men as mentors in her career, she said it often has seemed hard for men in business to see her as a person. Many women attending the conference said men brush aside their comments and then steal their ideas.

Not surprisingly, family issues remain a big topic for women in IT.

Carolyn Reuss, director of product management at Internet Security Systems Inc., said it was "extremely important" to her that ISS allowed her a flexible work schedule in order to juggle work and family. "I was even promoted while on maternity leave," she added. "I don't know many companies that would do that."

According to the ITAA study on gender and race in IT released in May, the IT profession is mostly white and mostly male. The study, titled "Report of the ITAA Blue Ribbon Panel on IT Diversity," offered some theories on why women lag, suggesting motherhood is one of them.

Why exactly women lag in IT - they earned about 22 percent of computer science and engineering undergraduate degrees in 2000 according to the ITAA report - has been an oft-debated topic in academia. Professors at institutions that include Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University have churned out theories for years on why more young women aren't drawn to high tech.

"It's the milieu in computer science that women don't like as much. They see the human interactions in other departments are more exciting," says Eric Roberts, professor of computer science at Stanford. Computer science is seen as "male-dominated," he says.

Tracy Futhey, CIO at Duke University, said she benefited during her computer science studies at Carnegie Mellon from the proactive campaign there to get women involved in IT.

Although most of her 300-person technical staff are male, Futhey said including women in any new technology initiative is good practice so as to fully understand the effect on the end user. "It's important to get all the perspectives around the table," she said.

While women's progress in IT might be slow, life does look a lot brighter than it did 25 years ago, some say. Kristina Johnson, dean of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, described a scene as an 18-year-old student at Stanford where her physics professor asked if she planned to "get married and get pregnant" over the next decade. He said that because if she did, he didn't want her in his physics research program.

"I was turned off by physics," she said, adding that the turning point came when mentors, including Stanford electrical engineering professor Joseph Goodman, inspired her at the start of her career. "He treated men and women the same."

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