"We do have women in IT careers, so there must be something else going on," said Eileen Trauth, professor of information sciences and technology, and lead researcher. "The lack of women isn't due to the biological traits of the sexes, and it isn't just because IT is a male domain."
The Penn State researcher argues that a mix of factors accounts for the gender gap in IT fields. These interact with gender and include age, parenthood, race, nationality and education level. Those individual characteristics provide insight into why people who hear the same message--in this case, IT is for men only--might ignore it while others can't.
Trauth presented that argument Aug. 8 at the Tenth Americas Conference on Information Systems in New York in a paper titled "Exploring the Importance of Social Networks In the IT Workforce: Experiences with the 'Boys Club'." Co-authors are Allison J. Morgan and Jeria L. Quesenberry, both doctoral students in the Penn State School of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).
The researchers looked at how a group of women with IT jobs related to "Old Boys' Clubs," those informal social networks within an organization that can help participants find new jobs, land promotions or develop significant relationships. Because only one in four IT jobs belongs to a woman, the researchers questioned how the combination of an Old Boys' Network and the male-dominated IT workplace affected women.
Women generally responded to the networks in one of four ways, according to Trauth. Some women deliberately developed interests that meshed with their male counterparts in order to join in the networks. One survey respondent, for instance, took flying lessons to facilitate talking with her male colleagues.
Another group created alternative networks, meeting after work, while some women simply chose not to participate. They cited family responsibilities, lack of shared interests and lack of time. The final group included women who enjoy and sometimes prefer interacting with men.
Forty-four women living in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and North Carolina were interviewed as part of this multi-year study funded by the National Science Foundation. The women ranged in age from 23 to 57; had diverse racial backgrounds; were married, single, divorced, widowed or in a committed relationship; and represented a variety of educational levels including 15 women with Ph.Ds.
The researchers' findings alert managers to the need to create a variety of social networking opportunities beyond playing golf or being on the company baseball team, Trauth said. Managers also can work on helping people develop the skills necessary to create their own networks.
"Our research is showing that the gender gap in the IT workforce results from the complex interactions of a number of factors that includes what one obtains from a social network-namely, access to information, resources and opportunities," Trauth said.
Companies that open up social networking opportunities for all members of their IT labor force are taking a significant step toward addressing the gender gap.