A recent Gartner Group study indicates the
number of women in IT jobs has declined from 42 percent of the
workforce in 1996 to 32.4 percent in 2004 and continues to drop.
Worldwide the number of women selecting computer science programs in
college is also decreasing.
Although women still account for almost 25% of the U.S. computing
and IT workforce, they earn only 10% of U.S. patents granted each year.
Despite this, a recent survey of 1000 U.S. researchers showed that
nearly half the inventions that demonstrated "once-in-a-generation
insight" were created by women! This perceived reluctance by women to
protect their ingenuity with patents may be costing them (and their
employers) billions of dollars' worth of commercialization
opportunities in the U.S. alone.
What's going on? Why are women so poorly represented in IT
and patenting? Why are they now leaving the field in droves or failing
to enter it at all, when they clearly they don't lack technical ability?
The problem as I see it is thus: while women are gifted,
industrious, and creative, they are also very different from men.
Society's recent love affair with gender "equality" may be
short-changing women by leaving the impression that "equal ability"
means "identical ability." Jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields
were created by men, for men, and with traditionally male definitions
of what constitutes success.
So (understanding that any broad discussion of gender differences involves generalizations), just how do men and women differ?
Men are risk takers. Women are better at social skills and
understanding others. Women want to achieve, but they want to do so as
a result of accomplishment, not just for the sake of having bested
Women are born multitaskers – they can remain calm and focused while
working on multiple tasks simultaneously. An anthropologist might
attribute this to their historical role as caregivers and the inherent
need in that role to focus on a variety of activities at once. Perhaps
this natural ability to multitask makes it difficult for women to allow
themselves to daydream, or to focus a large part of their brains on a
single problem. That sort of one-track thinking is crucial in some
areas of scientific research and for invention. Recognition of this
predisposition might help women see the need to train themselves to
focus their thought processes and fully explore a single problem when
that type of skill is required.
Women have a tendency to focus on making sure that work gets done.
They often fail to "blow their own horn" or to consider their ideas
particularly meritorious. They also inspect their creations and
credentials more carefully than men do before presenting them, and are
therefore slower to take advantage of jobs, patents, and other
Women in academia often fail to patent their inventions because of a
lack of familiarity with the business community. Thus, for these
inventors, the applicability or marketability of their inventions is
Last year I formed The Women Inventors Community at IBM and was
amazed at the response. As a result, I've learned a great deal about
why women are not as involved in patenting activities and why women are
underrepresented in leadership and innovation positions in high-tech
companies. I regularly receive emails of thanks from women who had
previously felt they were not "worthy" or talented enough to write a
patent. I think this exemplifies the fact that women are not achieving
their potential because they assume they must compete evenly with men.
The playing field does not have to be level to be fair.
Women excel at multitasking and need to take advantage of this
talent. Women also possess an excellent ability to network and manage
ongoing relationships. As a result of these two factors, women are
overtaking men in management and project lead roles. However, women
must also recognize the importance of single-minded focus in certain
circumstances and hone this skill to better delve into creative
thinking on individual problems.
Women often lack self-confidence and can be overly self-critical. Strong role models, examples, mentoring, and information
are essential to the development of career and self-esteem. The women
in my invention community appear to be information-starved. Once you
show them what and how, they excel.
Full integration of women into the IT and scientific workplace and
realization of their potential requires that we acknowledge some
gender-specific differences. Increased self-awareness and a better
understanding of their makeup will help women to take better advantage
of the available opportunities. Providing women with support,
education, mentoring, and acceptance will go a long way toward finally
unveiling the wisdom and beauty of the female psyche.
Pam Nesbitt is a Software Engineer, Learning Technologist and
Innovator for ISST Automation and eDelivery at Tivoli/IBM, and has been
a MentorNet mentor since 2004. If you wish to contribute a story or
have suggestions for a MentorNet News story let us know.