Do you remember the movie Desk Set with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? Released in 1957, it spot-lighted the role that computers were beginning to play in the workplace. The movie was very loosely based upon an actual CBS research library headed by legendary researcher Agnes E. Law. In the movie, it's head researcher Bunny Watson (Kathryn Hepburn) who presides over an office of "challenged" research professionals, all of whom are women.
In the real world, the crew under Agnes Law at CBS was an efficient, hardworking, extremely meticulous team who researched the facts that were used to back the broadcasts of the CBS news organization. (Surely, they could have been put to good use recently by Dan Rather in researching his botched news story about President Bush's Vietnam-era service record.) But in the movie world, women of that period were viewed in a different way, and the idea that a woman researcher might actually take a career within IT was supposed to be humorous.
The plot of Desk Set is about the sudden arrival of an efficiency expert named Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) who wants to install his IBM computer--which he lovingly refers to as "Emmy"--into the research office. The story pits the computer against the female researcher, and Richard's computer finds a worthy rival in the brilliant Bunny (Hepburn), who has an encyclopedic recall of every fact under the sun.
However, in the end, Bunny and Richard fall in love, the IBM computer is successfully installed into the library, and the future of IT--as well as domestic tranquility and corporate efficiency--seems assured. That's what makes it so interesting today. The phrase "You've come a long way, baby!" seems to echo each time one sees the movie today.
Or does it?
Women in IT--Twenty-Five Years of Progress
Now fast-forward more than 25 years, from 1957 to 1983. If Desk Set was a glimpse into the future of women in the IT workplace, in 1983 its predictions seemed right on target within the trends of business and information automation.
Indeed, according to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, women in 1983 showed tremendous career progress in the area of IT, holding 30.5% of the jobs in the category of computer systems analysts and scientists, programmers, and post-secondary computer science teachers. IBM itself was leading the way with progressive policies of recruitment at the best colleges and universities across the nation. (Indeed, some of IBM's top executives today are women who were recruited during that era of career expansion.)
Meanwhile, within business in general, the role of women was also expanding. According to that same commission study, 44% of all IT jobs in the United States were held by women in 1983. And though equal pay for equal work had become a rallying cry against gender-based wage discrimination, there was a general sense within IT that time would rectify the imbalance.
Indeed, moving forward to 1996, women comprised 41% of IT workers, and pay scales within IT were beginning to approach parity. Then, starting in 2000, something serious started to go amiss in the career aspirations of female IT workers. What was it? How did it happen? Even Hepburn and Tracy would be appalled.
The Fall of Women Within IT
In 2000, the IT industry underwent a terrible recession that commenced with the burst of the dot-com investment bubble. Of course, all of IT began to suffer from cutbacks, but women in IT felt the cutbacks more severely than their male counterparts did. By 2002, the overall representation of women in IT had dropped to 26%, according to the National Science Foundation. This means that, between 1996 and 2002, not only did IT lose overall personnel, but 15% more women than men were fired or chose to quit IT.
Even today, in 2005, we are continuing to witness a disproportionate representation of women in new computer science graduates. Data from the National Science Foundation shows that the female share of bachelor's degrees in computer science dropped from 37% in 1985 to 28% in 2001. And this trend is not just within the United States.
In the UK, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has now called for a concerted government strategy to increase the proportion of women in IT, following research showing that only one in five IT workers is female. The EOC investigation into gender segregation and modern apprenticeships revealed that the proportion of women in IT had recently fallen from 23% to 20%.
Caroline Slocock, chief executive of the EOC, has dismissed arguments that the IT gender gap might largely be due to the different subject preferences of the sexes. This was the argument that Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, recently used to excuse the lack of women in the areas of science and mathematics.
On the contrary, Slocock said: "Some of it may come down to that, but we've seen enormous social change in relation to other traditionally male-dominated professions. The majority entering law and medicine are now women, for instance. I don't think there's anything natural about the gender differential in IT." A more likely factor, she suggested, is the lack of promotional prospects for women entering the IT sector.
Lack of Representation Leads to Low Career Prospects
Slocock has also criticized the career advice given to female students and the choices those students make based on that advice. "Many people tend to make traditional career choices, but those choices aren't being challenged. It's clear many are unaware of the pay differentials between different industries, for example," she said.
Possible Economic Causes of the Crash
Though pundits often point to the long hours of education and the demands of family life as excuses for why women are no longer interested in IT as a career, no one seems to have given serious study to the impact that H-1B visas and IT outsourcing have had upon IT careers for women.
H-1B visas are visas provided to foreign workers--many of whom are IT and engineering workers--to fill a perceived shortage in the domestic workforce, and they have now been shown to have been used aggressively by the IT industry to put pressure on the wages that IT employees earn. How have H-1B visas impacted women's employment within IT?
Consider, for example, the statistics from 290,000 H-1B applications recently provided by the U.S. Department of Labor and the impact the IT Association of America (ITAA) has had upon the debate. Between 2000 and 2003, the ITAA worked very successfully at lobbying Congress to substantially increase the number of H-1B visas, even while domestic IT employment was faltering. The ITAA insisted that a shortage of qualified IT workers existed, even though its own statistics pointed to a rise in domestic IT unemployment. Congress--ever willing to please an industry lobby--went along with the ITAA and substantially increased the number of H-1B visas that were issued during those years.
The results? Recent statistics now being shared by the U.S. Department of Labor definitively prove that the actual salaries of H-1B applicants declined between 2001 and 2003. The specific areas of salary decline within IT were shown across the board in programming, systems analysis, networking, end user support, and quality assurance.
So ITAA succeeded in lowering the cost of programmers. How did that affect female professionals?
The decline in the cost of hiring a H-1B visa worker has led some analysts to conclude that the lower wages of H-1B visa holders created a financial "wedge" designed to crack the salary levels of IT positions reported to Human Resources (HR) departments within larger corporations.
In other words, by creating a newer, lower stratum of employment within IT (H-1B visa holders), companies could get around published HR guidelines for hiring IT workers and "squeeze" the salaries of employees in medium-salary stratums.
These same analysts suggest that these medium-stratum workers would naturally be the women professionals within IT who have been historically paid less than their male counterparts--a fact well-documented by IT worker groups within IBM and the industry as a whole.
The Coup de Grace of Outsourcing
Now, combine this trend of declining H-1B salaries with the sudden rise in IT outsourcing that began in 2002, and the outline of the perfect wage-squeezing mechanism becomes even more apparent. How did this work?
Starting in 2002, larger corporations began outsourcing entire IT departments to third-party organizations in India, Pakistan, and Panama. Quite quickly, everyone's job in programming, systems analysis, networking, end user support, and quality assurance seemed up for grabs. Who would survive?
Of course, those in IT with the most seniority, the most experience, or the greatest visibility were more likely to survive or make a transition to other areas of management. Those who were not so well-endowed received their pink slips. Who were these unfortunates? That's the question analysts are trying to figure out answers to.
De Facto Structural Discrimination
The idea that there were de facto "structural" inequities in the layoffs, resulting in gender preference, is clearly a possibility, these analysts say. Some believe these inequities weren't conscious, planned, or even acknowledged by management or the employees involved. They just happened, everywhere, at once. But the effect has been a leveling of IT that has disproportionately impacted women. They were the ones "caught in the squeeze" between seniority and imported lower-wage earners.
Meanwhile, college students witnessing the gutting of IT departments around the world took note. The prospects for a valuable, long-term career in IT didn't look bright, especially for women. The progressive trend for hiring women in IT, begun by IBM and celebrated in movies like Desk Set, was finally at an end.
The Future for Women in IT
Today, statistics show that IT employment is starting to rebound. IT salaries too have begun to recover. But the damage done to the cause of employment equity within IT has been severe. Not only have the ranks of female IT professionals been severely thinned, but the numbers of women studying computer science has dwindled substantially. It will take years to recoup the skills base that has been squandered, and it may take years longer to instill a sense of equity back into IT hiring and promotion practices.
Most analysts believe it's important for management to thoroughly understand the structural, financial, and cultural reasons why these recent inequities occurred within IT. In addition, it's important for management to seek out ways to recognize these kinds of trends before they wreak havoc upon other departments. The cost of recruiting and training highly qualified individuals rises yearly. To foster a misguided belief that any group of professionals would leave a career after years of hard study, long hours, and steady advancement simply because of a global change in values is, in my opinion, absurd. A loss of so many gifted and skilled professionals within IT is larger than any simple tragedy.
Katherine Hepburn would call it "scandalous." No doubt, Spencer Tracy would investigate.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.