Women are crucial to future of IT in US

Commentary is a regular UMSL Daily column written by members of the UMSL community.

By VICKI SAUTER

Information technology is pervasive in our lives. Whether using an application on a smart phone or a program for work, we are increasingly using computers more. In addition to business apps, there are apps for helping us meet people, run our home and plan our finances and even our vacations.

Because of this diversity in where computers are used, there is great variety in the paths in being an IT professional. For example, someone interested in health care can pursue that passion with a career in health information systems. Another person with an interest in music might mix recordings with computers, and an individual interested in law enforcement can work in developing systems to track criminals and better investigate crimes.

At the same time the demands for technology are increasing, the number of students pursuing information systems or computer science degree programs is decreasing. In St. Louis, there are not enough job seekers to fill the positions available. And the number of women pursuing such careers is decreasing at a greater pace.

Women make up a smaller percentage of the IT field today than 20 years ago. In 1987, 35 to 40 percent of IT workers were women. Today women hover between 20 and 25 percent of the field. In 1984, 35 to 40 percent of the undergraduates in IT classes were women, while today it is less than 20 percent. This is at a time when the number of women graduating from college has increased!

This decreasing number of women in the field clearly contributes to the overall gap between the supply of, and demand for, IT professionals. In addition, this decreasing participation by women can also contribute to how IT responds to the needs of businesses and society. The disproportionately large number of men, and their seniority in the IT sector, foster a bias of male viewpoints dictating product development, the process of development, the design of new technology and, ultimately, the relative usefulness of new technology to all users.

Yet research suggests that increasing the number of women in development teams can contribute to improved success in design and management of IT projects. In this field, where the demand for applications grows every day, and the probability of project failure has been estimated to be well above 50 percent, the IT community should be eager to expand the pool of workers who might improve its ability to meet demand successfully.

In other words, it is in society’s best interests to increase the number of women in the IT field. In fact, some have said increasing the numbers of women in IT is critical to maintaining national competitiveness.

Each year the information systems department at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, in conjunction with the IS Advisory Board, sponsors a weeklong camp called Xtreme IT! in an attempt to interest more high school students in the field. This year students will participate in a variety of activities such as developing applications, visiting companies, mixing music and even playing board games to learn more about the field.

This year is special, though, because of a challenge grant from Savvis, A CenturyLink Company, to attract more girls to the camp. While some years the camp had a ratio of 15 boys to 1 girl, this year’s Xtreme IT! will have a ratio of 15 boys to 21 girls! This is our small step to reverse the decline of women in computing careers.

Vicki Sauter is a professor of information systems at UMSL.


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