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Why aren't more women in executive careers in IT?

Tuesday was International Women’s Day. The United Nations‘ theme for 2011: “Equal access to education, training and science and technology.” Last week at the FusionCIO conference in Madison, Wis., a casual poll of the attendees list shows that the woman-to-man ratio was about 1:8. The girls playing with Teen Talk Barbie (the one that exclaimed “Math class is tough!”) back in 1992 are in the workplace today. Are they following a path to IT leadership, or do they still think that math and IT are tough?

At the conference lunch, this disparity became obvious when I sat down at a mostly empty table for eight. One by one, the seats were claimed by women until I joked to our one male dining companion that I hoped he wasn’t feeling like an “odd man out.” There were over 200 executives at that conference and only 40 of them women, and what are the odds that there would be a table with a seven-women, 1-man split? I’m hoping someone tells me in the comments because math is hard (just kidding)!

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, in 2009 women earned only 18% of computer science degrees. When the world’s first computer, ENIAC, was born in 1947, its programming team was comprised entirely of women. So what happened? Actually, the more interesting question is, why is it still happening? The problem may be stereotyping: Women are perceived to be better in nurturing fields, according to “Where are the Women in Information Technology?” But leaders with people skills will always be prized in IT, regardless of gender. The successful CIO manages the mechanical and the personal with panache.

As evolved as we are, we still have primitive instincts to band together. Whether it’s football teams or water-cooler talk, we negotiate an internal, inherent need to be with “people like me,” no matter who those people are, just like our ancestors did back when information technology was wheels and fire. We can look no further than the FusionCIO lunch room to see that theory in action, but if we continue to recruit and encourage women to come to the table, I am confident that it won’t be too long before Barbie is raking in the VC to support her legion of iPad apps.

Should we actively try to break this glass ceiling for women in IT leadership, or is it male-dominated for a reason?

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