Why so few tech women?

Wanted: The highly paid information technology industry is booming in just about every area but one: its ability to attract more female workers.

June 29, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Kim Siedsma and Amie Etheridge are a bit of an anomaly in the red-hot information technology industry. They're women in a 50- year-old profession that has been dominated by men.

The two - employees of a network solutions consultant - are among the 5,000 IT professionals attending the two-day Information Technology Exposition and Conference (ITEC) that opened in Baltimore yesterday.

As many of the IT company executives at the event can attest, the information technology industry is grappling with a shortage of skilled workers.

But another hiring issue is moving to center stage: the difficulty in attracting bright women like Siedsma and Etheridge in an industry that has pervasive influence on everyday life and where pay scales are rising faster than in many other industries.

Women make up only 29 percent of the five leading IT job categories studied in a 1999 White House report, although women make up 47 percent of the nation's work force.

The number of women in the best-paying high-technology jobs is even smaller, the report found. While 20 percent of male high-tech workers earn at least $69,740 annually, only 7 percent of female workers earn that much.

Such inequality may discourage technically inclined women from entering the profession, estimated a spokeswoman for Women in Technology International, a Silicon Valley advocacy group studying female participation in the industry. WITI estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of IT job applicants are women.

"It's one of the biggest issues we're faced with when a job opens," said Shirley Collier, president of Paragon Computer Services Inc., an Ellicott City IT consultant. "We rarely see women apply for these jobs."

Collier, who conducted an ITEC presentation on technology issues affecting women, believes that the shortage is due to subtle discouragement young women receive while in high school and college.

"The message young women are given is that the field is too complicated, only men can understand it, so they shy away from something that maybe they would really be interested in," she said.

Although more than half the students attending college today are women, less than 20 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science and computer engineering go to women, according to WITI.

Not all technically savvy women wave off the IT profession. Siedsma began considering the field after a stint in environmental consulting.

"I love science and marketing. IT looked like a good move for me, and a lot of firms now have pretty intensive training programs to get you in the door," said Siedsma, who establishes and manages complex IT consulting accounts at Savvis, a fast-growing network solutions consultant in Reston, Va.

Etheridge, a recent college graduate who just completed Savvis' training program, said: "It's still a very male-dominated field, but that's changing."

As a result of the Internet, more and more young women are becoming adept at working with computers and software, she said.

Other companies, such as technology solutions consultant LCG Technologies Corp. in Timonium, are taking steps to attract women.

Tom Lang, LCG's president, said his company has expanded a college internship program to include more women after failing to attract enough female applicants through traditional channels. The internship program was expanded to 20 slots, from two. Of those 20, seven are women.

Lang said the company also has changed policies to allow employees with children more flexibility in setting work hours and is permitting some programming to be done at home.

"Finding good workers is very hard in this profession, and finding women is even harder," said Lang. "Companies have to do everything they can to set up a work environment that attracts women."

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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