Women in IT: Barrier to Entry

I was reading an article in InfoWorld today talking about the low numbers of women in IT. Anyone who has worked in the field and most who have not know that the IT industry is practically devoid of women. In fact I was surprised that women make up almost 25% of the field. In my experience the number is dramatically lower. I wonder if to make the numbers seem so high they are taking only a subset of the field or perhaps including some pretty far reaching support personnel. My personal experience across many vertical industries and in companies of many sizes and geographic locations is that women represent no more than 10-15% of the field. Although recently I have begun to see this number rising but only through my increased interaction with IT professionals in Europe.

Articles abound discussing why women are not being encouraged to enter IT or why so many women are now exiting the field but I want to discuss a particular area in which, I believe, women are being hampered from entering deeply into the IT workforce but that is very often overlooked – the physical asset management career phase.

In almost any IT professional’s career, especially one who takes the fast track and wishes to start working in IT from a young age and looks to get experience possibly during high school, instead of college or coinciding with college is often tasked with working in an extremely physical environment. Whether you are talking about that first job placing monitors on desks and crawling on the floor to plug in desktops or if you are racking and stacking servers in the datacenter – the first several years for the average IT professional entering the field is likely to be very physical. The facts are that the equipment involved in the IT industry is, on average, quite heavy but most jobs remain closely tied to the hardware and going through the hardware management stage is critical to most IT job paths. There is a reason why the CompTIA A+ exam is expected for almost any IT professional in her first several years of employment.

Working with the physical hardware has a lot of advantages. Knowing intimately how a server goes together or what types of racks use what hardware or how many hard drives fit into a chassis can be important even when reaching into high IT ranks. Of course this knowledge can be gained through study instead of first hand knowledge but this is much more difficult and the results are not the same. In an interview I can state that I have first hand working knowledge of myriad hardware platforms. Even now with over a dozen years of experience in the field it still comes into play in almost any interview or discussion. The ability to lift a Compaq Proliant 6500 or a 2200VAC UPS unit were major factors for me getting work at one point. They allowed me to do tasks without assistance and to take jobs that may not have been available to someone with left lifting power.

I once worked a desktop support job that involved moving eighty-five twenty-one inch Sony CRT monitors along with their desktop counterparts. They had to be moved from the back of a tractor trailer and brought into an office building and placed on desks all over the office. They had to be unboxed and hooked up. It was an entire evening for the crew spent just doing heavy lifting. It wasn’t the part of the job that we were getting paid for but the company didn’t want to hire a separate moving crew just to move some computers so they paid us to do it. But even the crew of almost all early twenty-something men were completely spent by the end of the evening. It was a grueling task and the job barely allowed enough time to get home, sleep and return before more work had to be done. Work like this can be instrumental in getting one’s foot in the door of the industry.

Today desktops are becoming smaller and the switch from CRT monitors to LCD has helped reduce the size and weight of desktop computers immensely. More computer users have chosen laptops which makes the job even easier yet. But currently these weight reductions only affect the PC support role jobs which are generally at the beginning of most IT professionals’ careers. These are gateway positions – important in teaching scope and breadth to up and coming IT workers but seldom a target or stopping point on the career path. It is not uncommon for these jobs to become dead-end jobs for those unable to make the next logical stop – the datacenter.

In the datacenter the equipment that is dealt with every day is very heavy and cumbersome. Equipment ranges from back-breaking 4U rack mount servers to fork-lift only cabinets. Heavy floor panels with razor sharp edges are often moved routinely to gain access to under-floor cables. In large datacenters servers may be rack and unracked daily. Heaving lifting is and will continue to be a core function of datacenter work for some time to come.

Many women are not capable of physical datacenter work and far fewer would want to do it whether or not they were able. Very few men look forward to racking servers – it just isn’t pleasant. But the server technician step can be a critical step on the IT ladder. It gives desktop support personnel a direct link between desktop support and system administration. For people looking for something similar to desktop support but more technical and challenging it can make a more attractive career target. It gives IT professionals hands on training in the equipment that they will be making decisions about later and a more clear understanding of the limitations and capabilities of the machinery. As humans we learn best by doing and leaving a piece of the chain a mystery makes it seem more difficult and complicated than it really is.

Almost everyone that I know in IT has either spent time working in a datacenter or intends to do so at some point. Only career programmers tend to avoid this step and generally only those who spend long years in college to get around it. Many programmers go through the server tech stage as a means of fast-tracking their careers and broadening their horizons.

I don’t have a useful solution for the industry. Right now we are affected by a multitude of problems that seem superficial on the surface but may be having a dramatic impact on the industry’s ability to attract and retain a female workforce. As time moves on desktops will continue to be reduced in weight and the Deskside Support roles will become less physically demanding. Eventually the datacenter’s mainstay equipment will weight less that eighty pounds and when it does many more people will be in a position to work in that environment. But for now we are challenged by an industry so broad and so complicated that senior IT managers, system architects, engineers, administrators, etc. are all expected to have paid their dues at some point in a demanding physical equipment environment. This is not to say that there are no means of reaching the higher echelons of the industry without having worked in the datacenter. Not at all. But the reality remains that there are vastly more opportunities for entry into the field and for early rungs on the ladder for people capable and willing to take on unpleasant and physically challenging positions.

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