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What do women in IT want?

Ask them, says Penn State researcher

Penn State

Analyzing the life paths of 31 women working in the overwhelmingly male world of computer and information technology (IT) reveals a pattern of "odd girls out," says a Penn State researcher, which suggests that increasing female representation in these fields will not be as simple as finding out "What women want."

Dr. Eileen Trauth, professor information sciences and technology, says, "You can't stereotype all women with respect to IT. You can't assume what women as a group want. You have to ask an individual woman."

"Successful women IT professionals do not all experience the same influences, nor do they all respond in the same ways," she adds. "Each individual woman is shaped by the cultural assumptions of the countries which formed her, by her parents, family and teachers and by significant others and events."

These findings suggest that women can best be encouraged to enter and stay in IT fields by treating them as individuals. Respecting an individual woman or girl's particular interests - what an individual women or girl is good at - will help her resist the subtle social shaping that tells her interest in IT is "normal" for males but not for females, says Trauth.

Trauth detailed her study and analysis in the current issue of the journal, Information Technology and People. Her paper is titled, "Odd Girl Out: An Individual Differences Perspective on Women in the IT Profession." She notes that she is using the phrase "Odd Girl Out" with permission granted by a women's Australian band of the same name.

The Penn State researcher conducted her study on sabbatical at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. She did in-depth interviews with 31 Australian and New Zealand women who collectively had lived in 13 different countries, including the U.S. The interviews showed that what is "normal" female IT employment in one country may be "abnormal" in another. For example, females are accepted as computer analysts in Australia but not as programmers. The opposite is true in India. Women computer engineers are typical in some eastern European countries but not in the U.S.

"The ways in which the respondents felt different from other women were closely aligned with gender stereotyping," Trauth says. "The respondents, collectively, described themselves as powerful people: forthright, strong, driven, ambitious, mathematical, logical and competitive. They considered these traits to be necessary for success in the IT field and also what set them apart from other women."

She writes, "If we are serious about addressing the gender imbalance in the IT profession, all of the stakeholders - government, schools, families and employers - must examine their contribution to social shaping.

"We need to see if we have a culture in which it is not OK for a woman or girl to be competitive or assertive, for example," she adds. "Do we give women the same range of assertive behavior as males or is there a much narrower range of acceptable assertive behavior for women in the workplace? Women who had engaged in sports in school, where it's OK to be assertive and competitive, often cited this experience as encouraging them in the workplace."

The Penn State researcher also found that the family, for example, a supportive father or other close male relative or a self confident, "level-headed" mother, helped many of the women to resist social shaping and dare to become an "odd girl out" in IT. In other cases, a teacher was mentioned as providing the essential encouragement.

Single sex schools were cited as both a positive influence and a negative one. Women who felt a single sex school was a negative influence complained about being ill-prepared in mathematics when they entered college. Women who felt a single sex school was a positive influence praised being shown there that engineering and physics are open to women.

Trauth says, since social shaping has made the notion of success in some IT areas incompatible with being female, just giving young girls access to computers will not necessarily encourage them to enter the field. On the other hand, she adds, a Barbie doll dressed for IT success and equipped with software just might play a positive role.

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Griffith University School of Computing and Information Technology supported the study.

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