Women in IT delay family for careers, still miss top jobs

By Meridith Levinson, CIO.com |  Career, women in IT

Women are making profound personal sacrifices to advance their IT careers, but their efforts to get ahead are largely for naught, a new study of mid-career women in IT finds.

According to the study, which was conducted by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and Stanford University's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research earlier this year, one-third of mid-level technical women surveyed said they postponed motherhood to achieve their career goals. In comparison, 18 percent of technical men reported doing the same. Thus, mid-level women in IT are almost twice as likely as men to delay having children while they pursue their careers.

Women in mid-level IT jobs are also almost three times more likely than men to forgo having children altogether. Nearly one in 10 women (9 percent) said they decided against having kids to focus on their careers, compared with just 3.5 percent of men, according to the research.

Roughly the same amount of men and women put off marriage (12.3 and 11.9 percent respectively) to establish themselves professionally. But more women put their careers ahead of getting married their whole lives: 7.8 percent of women surveyed said they remained single to focus on their careers, compared to 2.5 percent of men.

The study authors conclude that the personal sacrifices that women in IT make to get ahead testify to the lengths women have to go to be successful in a male-dominated field.

Not surprisingly, women interviewed for the study reported feeling forced to choose between their careers and having a family. One woman taking part in the research said that if she really wanted to work her way up the ladder in IT, having a family would be a disadvantage. Why? Because women surveyed and interviewed for the study said they have to work longer and harder than men to get promotions due to double standards, biases and gender stereotypes that are prevalent in high-tech companies. (For resources on how to reduce gender bias in your organization and ideas on ways to recruit and retain women to IT jobs, see Making Your IT Department More Attractive to Women and Six More Ways to Recruit Women.)

Risk, but Little Reward

Unfortunately, the sacrifices and compromises women make to advance their careers may not guarantee their success, the research authors concluded. The survey found that technical men are nearly three times more likely than technical women to hold an executive-level position in their companies.

One of the reasons women get passed up for promotions is because some men view them as less technically competent, according to the research. In an environment where leaders must have a technical background to earn the respect of their direct reports, this gender stereotype presents a real obstacle for women.

Because women aren't seen as technically proficient, they're often given low-visibility tasks that are stereotypically feminine, such as support, the authors say. Their lack of visibility in their organizations makes it even harder for them to move up; women interviewed for the study said that as much as their companies like to think of themselves as meritocracies, visibility, power and influence are as important to earning promotions as merit and accomplishment.

"I had general expectations that I'd be evaluated on my merits alone and not necessarily on my gender. That was the case earlier in my career," said one high-level technical woman who responded to the study. "But [to] progress through the ranks to get past middle management, is it based on your individual merit, or is it based upon who you know and being in the right place at the right time? Other factors definitely come into play the more senior you become...It becomes a club. The connections seem to count quite a bit."

Another barrier to women's success in IT that the study identifies is a workplace culture that rewards self-promotion, assertiveness and ambition. Women and men interviewed for the study noted that women have to be assertive to, at a minimum, survive in IT.

Against that backdrop of gender barriers, perhaps it's no wonder that 56 percent of mid-career women decide to leave their organizations to pursue new opportunities.

The study, Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Technology, surveyed 1,795 male and female tech workers employed at high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. Researchers followed-up the survey by conducting in-depth interviews with 112 survey respondents. The report was released on October 3, 2008.

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