Women in IT

Margaret Hopkins
September 01, 2003

Women are poorly represented in the IT sector, says Eileen Trauth.

In America, men—primarily white men—hold about three quarters of all professional and managerial positions in Information Technology.

The number of Irish women in the IT sector was even lower than that when Trauth, a Penn State professor of information sciences and technology, first began her research there in the early 1990s. In Ireland, strong cultural beliefs that women belong in the home, coupled with gender-segregated education, had kept many women out of the workplace. But when multinational IT firms began locating in Ireland, the employment doors opened. Initially most women worked in hardware assembly. Then as global competition increased and Ireland grew to become a center for software design and production, the industry maintained its innovative edge by coming to rely on a workforce that had grown more diverse.

Trauth's interest in Ireland's IT sector has serendipitous roots. In 1986, she traveled to western Ireland to research her family tree. The small rural community where she stayed still had human operators routing telephone calls. "I was surprised, when I returned to Boston, to discover that a lot of major computer companies had offices and plants in Ireland," Trauth says. "The contrast between this low-tech, rural community and this high-tech sector intrigued me."

She returned to Ireland as a Fulbright scholar three years later to study how the country was changing from a poor nation of mostly small farmers to a magnet for foreign high-technology firms such as IBM, Intel, Apple, and Lotus. Today, Ireland boasts Europe's fastest growing economy and is sometimes called the "Celtic Tiger."

From interviews with IT workers, management personnel, government officials, and academicians, Trauth identified close to 100 factors spurring Ireland's transformation. Some of the factors, she said, result from public policies such as an educational strategy that added technical courses to curricula at traditional universities and created two new institutions of higher education focused on technical and professional education. In the Irish equivalent of our high schools, more math and science courses are being offered to girls.

Other factors were more random, such as a population bulge of potential young workers that multinational IT firms viewed as a plus. Additional factors, such as sociability, are embedded in the Irish culture. Irish workers, Trauth found, are much more inclined than their American counterparts to carry their work relationships outside of the office: Irish IT workers frequent pubs together, play on company-sponsored sports teams, and go on golf outings with one another, perhaps making them more effective as employees.

Trauth learned that as IT became more important for Ireland, opportunities for women expanded. In the mid-1990s, the number of women in the Irish workforce climbed 28 percent, with 66 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 45 employed outside the home—an increase that can be largely attributed to growth in the IT sector.

As she has in Ireland, Trauth anticipates she will see marked differences in perceptions about women's roles in IT in her study of three American economies in Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. She has begun interviewing women in each locale, documenting their exposure to computers in elementary school, significant adults in their lives, and family attitudes toward education. She is also examining social class factors, race, marital status, age, and the overall cultural roles of women in each region.

In other research, she has found that women cope with the male-dominated IT sector in one of three ways: assimilation, which involves a self-imposed denial of discrimination; accommodation, which includes avoiding confrontations; or activism, in which women question the gender imbalance and other inequities.

Changing the subtle sociocultural patterns that have shaped IT as a male domain demands increasing female representation, something that Trauth acknowledges won't be easy. A broader range of traits are acceptable in men than in women, she says. As a result, the very characteristics often regarded as necessary for success in IT—such as being ambitious, competitive, and logical—often set IT-oriented women apart from other women, a phenomenon Trauth describes in one paper as "Odd Girl Out."

Eileen M. Trauth, Ph.D., is professor of information sciences and technology in the School of Information Sciences and Technology, 001 Thomas Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865- 6457; etrauth@ist.psu.edu. In 2002, she received one of 14 inaugural E.T.S. Walton Visitor Awards from the Science Foundation of Ireland to continue her research into that country's information and communications technology industry.

Last Updated September 01, 2003