Women in IT

Perspectives

Women in IT

Five strategies for making it to the top

​​​As we approach International Women’s Day on March 8, a day that celebrates the numerous achievements of women, many of us will reflect on how far women have come in fields as varied as government, education, science, and the arts. But there is one field where women are still woefully underrepresented: Information Technology (IT). ​Sandy Shirai, US Technology, Media & Telecommunications leader, offers her perspective.

Perspectives from Sandy Shirai, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP

The lack of gender diversity in IT has been a topic of discussion and concern for over a decade. The situation seems to be stuck in neutral, despite the best efforts of educators, politicians, and corporations. In fact, according to predictions from Deloitte LLP, by the end of 2016, fewer than 25 percent of IT jobs in developed countries will be held by women, exactly the same–or even lower–than the previous year.

Granted, this is a somewhat dismal prediction, but there are some hopeful signs. While fewer than 20 percent of US computer science graduates were women in 2013, American companies are opening their doors to those who do qualify. Women are also moving into the higher echelons of tech companies; today 27 percent of IT managers are female, and the number of senior women in tech has never been greater. Technology companies are leading the broader IT industry when it comes to gender diversity. The eight US tech companies that released their gender diversity numbers in 2013 had an average of 30.3 percent female employees, a percentage that rose slightly in 2014.

Nevertheless, female IT professionals still encounter challenges, with one quarter of women in the US saying they feel stalled in their careers. For ambitious women who are looking for that senior position, what can they do to improve their odds of achieving it?

I have worked in IT for my entire career, most of it at Deloitte where I now head the firm’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications practice. Based on my own personal experience—as well as my observations of other women in the field—I can offer five strategies for success:​

​One quarter of all US women in IT say they feel stalled in their careers

Remember Metcalf's Law

One of the basic lessons of computer science, Metcalf’s Law, describes the "network effect" of communications technologies. Namely, that the value of a technology is dependent on the number of others using it: And as more people adopt it, it becomes exponentially more valuable. Network effects apply to telecommunications services, the Internet, and social media. But they also apply to your career. Think of it this way: If you are a node in a network and you are not linked to anyone, then no one knows of your accomplishments and potential. However, if you are networked to your colleagues, management, classmates, and customers or clients, the network effect helps you gain access to a wide range of other business contacts, making you a more valuable professional. Networking does not come naturally to all of us, but there are many books, classes, and events that offer simple tricks to make networking effective, and what’s more, fun.​

The network effect applies to your career​

Toss your hat in the ring

Sometimes an opportunity comes along that you know could be career altering. That’s when you can’t afford to hold back—you need to let people know that you want in, and let them know why. I remember, years ago, I wanted a particular promotion. I felt I was qualified, but I was somewhat hesitant. It seemed like a wild idea—something I never would have considered doing in the past. But I took a risk and told the CEO I wanted to be considered. It was a gamble, but it worked—and if I hadn’t stepped forward to express my interest, I doubt I would even have been in the running.

Don't be afraid to take risks

Don’t play down your tech chops

Deloitte’s research has found that minorities (gender and ethnic) tend to cover certain attributes in order to blend in. For women, covering often means playing down their technical abilities. As women in IT, we should be ourselves and be proud of what we have to offer. We can be scientific, super innovative, and cool. Don’t shy away from talking tech with your fellow engineers. They will respect you even more for that. For example, I was at a dinner with a group of computer engineers at an R&D facility, and as usual, I was the only woman. One of the topics that came up was the movie “The Martian.” There was a point in the movie when the main character needed to communicate using a 1970s computer. So during the dinner we jointly recreated the ASCII table and the hexadecimal message used in the movie. I think the guys had a new appreciation for me, since I could engage with them on such a technical level. It was a little nerdy, but thankfully, nerdy is in!​

Nerdy is in

Wear purple!

When women were first making their way in the business world, many of them wore manly clothes, cut their hair short, or wore tight buns, studied sports, and acted macho. Today it is acceptable to be female, look female, and act female. In IT that can be to your advantage, because it can help you stand out. I cannot tell you how many times I go to a meeting where I am the only woman present. I am not talking about being the only woman out of three or five. Sometimes I am the only woman out of 15 or 20. Being in the minority is not always desirable, but there is a silver lining … it is easier to be noticed—to stick out and be memorable. So go ahead and embrace your uniqueness. Stand up and be heard. Jump into the conversation. Convey your ideas. You have the podium!​

Embrace your uniqueness

Find mentors, then pay it forward

The computer term “bootstrap” refers to a self-starting process. It’s also an apt way to describe the first women in IT. They had to go it alone, but they got things started for those of us in the profession today. While there is still a long way to go before we reach gender parity, and challenges remain, it’s a lot easier now to find support networks and people who are willing to provide advice as you further your career. Seek them out—both men and women—and learn as much as you can from them. And just as those bootstrappers helped us, don’t hesitate to lend support to young women who come behind you. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, it’s up to those of us in leadership positions to help sponsor and encourage more girls and women to pursue fields in IT.

Support young women who come behind you

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