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ITAA's Report on IT Employment Diversity

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The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) has released a report documenting the level of female and minority employment in the IT industry, and the results are intriguing.

The report, entitled "Report of the ITAA Blue Ribbon Panel on IT Diversity" was delivered on May 5 at the National IT Workforce Convocation in Arlington, Virginia, and shows that the employment trend for women and minorities still lags behind other comparable occupations, though the trend is rising slowly in some key areas.

ITAA convened a "Blue Ribbon Diversity Panel" last fall to assess the progress being made by women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, older workers, and persons with disabilities in the high-tech workforce. According to the report, the panel reviewed data from government sources and discussed potential barriers to entry into IT for under-represented groups.

What the report discovered pretty much mirrors the dilemma of diversity in the United States economy as a whole: Women and minorities continue to be under-represented in IT, making IT one of the last major bastions of white, Anglo-Saxon, male professionals in the United States. However, using statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the panel was unable to pinpoint any particular reasons for this under-representation, and--instead--developed a series of rather bland recommendations that purport to address the problem of diversity in IT.

What the report does not examine is what the role is of this thing called "diversity," how the issue has been accepted as a worthwhile IT employment goal, and who within a corporation or the industry as a whole benefits from implementing a diversity employment practice.

The Good Old Days

There was a time in recent memory when hiring IT computer professionals outside of a particular personnel profile was more than risky: Doing so was a form of corporate career suicide. There were myths and stereotypes that permeated not only particular ethnic or gender groups, but also represented expectations about who should be permitted to handle the expensive data processing equipment. In that age, corporate officials believed that computers were designed for brainy geeks with pocket protectors who were invariably educated at MIT in a curriculum of electrical engineering.

Using similarly flawed logic, ethnic (and/or "racial") minorities were often considered too uneducated to be entrusted with the expensive equipment, while the idea of having women in the data processing department was fraught with problems that today seem downright idiotic.

For instance, one of the prevalent myths of times past was that women should not be permitted into a computer room for fear that their nylons would create some kind of electrostatic blackout.

At the time, computers were programmed with pegboards in binary machine code. Then, in 1952, a woman named Grace Murray Hopper created the first programming language that was built upon the premise that the machine would compile instructions that more closely resembled human verbs and nouns. She wrote a program that could turn those English-like instructions directly into binary machine code, and the FLOWMATIC computer language was born. The result of Hopper's efforts was the evolution of the common business-oriented language (COBOL), which became the revolutionary computing language of the 1960s.

Women's Role in IT Is in Decline

Today, according to the BLS, even after the 1990s boom in IT, women represent 34.9% of individuals employed in IT within the United States, compared to 46.6% in all other U.S. industries. (See Figure 1.)

Individuals represented as particular ethnic (what the BLS calls "racial") minorities represent, in descending order, 11.8% Asian or Pacific (compared to 4.0% in other occupations); 8.2% African American (compared to 10.9%); 6.3% Hispanic (compared to 12.2%); and .6% American Indian (compared to .9%).

What is distressing is that the percentages of representation on the whole for women are actually dwindling.


2002 Total
2002
1996

Employed (Thousands)
% Men
% Women
% Men
% Women
Electrical and Electronic Engineers
677
89.7
10.3
92
8
Computer Systems Analysts and Scientists
1,742
72.2
27.8
72
28
Operations and Systems Researchers and Analysts
238
51.3
48.7
57
43
Computer Programmers
605
74.4
25.6
69
31
Computer Operators
301
53.2
46.8
40
60
Data Entry Keyers
595
18.2
81.8
15
85
Total IT occupations
4,158
65.1
34.9
59
41
All Occupations
136,485
53.4
46.6
54
46

Source: United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Figure 1: The role of women in IT is declining.

For instance, between 1996 and 2002, the number of women identified as Computer Systems Analysts and Scientists dropped from 28 % to 27.8%; the number of Computer Programmers dropped from 31% to 25.6%; the number of Computer Operators dropped from 60% to 46.8%. Female representation in the area of Data Entry dropped from 85% to 81.8%. Only in two areas did the percentage of representation increase for women: Electrical Engineering rose from 8% to 10.3%, while Operations and Systems Researchers and Analysts rose from 43% to 48.7%.

On the other hand, the BLS numbers show an overall increase in the percentages of IT professionals for ethnic minorities, rising a little more than 5% since 1996, with the greatest gains going to Asian Americans.

What do these statistics tell us?

Shift in Industry Focus?

ITAA says that if we remove certain categories of IT jobs from the mix--such as so-called "administrative functions" like Data Entry and Computer Operators--the numbers actually show a slight net gain for all classifications, including women. They say that the industry has shifted focus from these "administrative" functions to a more technical orientation.

However, this technique--removing the disappointing statistics--really begs the question. Why? Because clearly the statistics demonstrate that entry-level positions into IT for women and minorities are dwindling. And what is worse educational trends show that a balkanization of IT into a white male-dominated profession is increasing.

Fewer Opportunities in IT for Women

For instance, in 2000, 22% of all computer science-related degrees issued by higher institutions were earned by women. In 2002, the numbers were exactly the same. (Statistics are unavailable from BLS for minorities.)

This indicates that, though the ratio of woman graduates has remained constant, the number of positions filled by women in the job market has actually diminished. Of course, the IT industry has been experiencing a global recession since 2000, but the impact is still clear: Women are a decreasing presence in IT, while ethnic minorities continue to struggle to gain employment.

When one couples this trend with other nongovernmental statistics that indicate women in IT earn approximately 8% less than their male counterparts in similar positions, it becomes obvious that there are forces of inertia at work in IT that will become increasingly difficult for women IT employees to address in the years ahead. Why? Because--in the midst of our IT recession--we in IT seem to be making hiring decisions that sustain the status quo of our historic white male orientation.

So what does the ITAA report tell us, and what is the significance of the report?

How Gender and Diversity Is Quantified

For an industry in recession, issues of employment equality are obviously secondary to the larger issues of full employment. But access to opportunities for employment is clearly a concern, and recognizing that some discrepancy in gender and minority representation exists--regardless of how that discrepancy has occurred--should inform our hiring decisions within IT.

Why is this important for IT?

If IT is to regain some level of ascendancy within corporations--particularly global corporations or organizations intent on maximizing their global access--building an IT staff that more clearly reflects the gender and ethnic mix of the user community can offer an opportunity to break down the barriers that separate IT from the rest of the organization.

The bottom line may not be quantifiable to the CFO but may be discernable in efficiency of worker communication, information flow, project coordination, and the timelines of project completion. In a time of economic recession, we'd be foolish not to consider how our employees interact with each other to maximize their job skills.

Heterogeneous Heterogeneousness in IT

An analogy could be made to our approach to computing systems. IT learned a long time ago that building heterogeneous information systems--systems composed of disparate computers, software, and networks--may not be the easiest thing to do in the short run. However, in the long run, the power of mixing disparate operating systems and computing systems offers tremendous versatility and power to the organization as a whole. Our corporations saw the benefit, and they made the appropriate moves to make these heterogeneous environments work.

A similar argument can be made for diversity in the IT workforce: The short-term effort may be difficult to reconcile with our predispositions, but the long-term impact may be highly profitable to the corporation. Recognizing the disparity that exists today is the first step toward analyzing how the entire IT workforce might be better configured in the future.

We already owe a great debt to individuals like Grace Murray Hopper who pioneered the development of advanced technologies in IT, such as the COBOL language. It would be ironic to imagine that today, 50 years after her legendary contribution, a person with her skill and creativity might find her career blocked by the simple coincidence that she didn't look like the rest of us.

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press. He may be reached for comment at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is an independent IT analyst and writer. He is the former Editor in Chief of MC Press Online and Midrange Computing magazine and has over 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, IT director, industry analyst, author, speaker, consultant, and editor.  

 

Tom works from his home in the Napa Valley in California. He can be reached at ITincendiary.com.

 

 

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