Women Get Into IT
While underrepresented nationally in most
technology related academic majors, women are enrolling in droves
in MSC's Bachelor of Science in Information Technology degree program.
That's good news for an industry trying to deal with professional
By Sheron Smith
Nikki Hatcher enrolled at Macon State College a couple of years
ago because she was attracted to the bachelor of science degree
in information technology. But before she formally declared IT as
her major, she decided to do a little research into the career possibilities.
What she learned troubled her.
"I saw all these headlines that said things like, 'IT Field
Not Popular With Women,' " said Hatcher, 31, an administrative
assistant at the Macon-based Office of Personnel Management, which
provides technology related services to federal agencies with branches
in the region. "I decided to go ahead with the IT program,
but I'll be honest with you: I felt slightly intimidated."
Now a senior in the program's multimedia track, Hatcher is feeling much more confident
about her choice of major, in part because she has plenty of female
While class instructor Tina Ashford
(arms folded) looks on, students in her Computer Hardware
and Sofware Concepts class study the design of computer hardware.
The course is an in-depth exploration of the functions and
architecture of computer hardware and operating systems software.
While the majority of Macon State's IT majors are male, women make
up a substantial portion of the program's enrollment at 45 percent.
The presence of female role models on the IT faculty also eased
"There are some women at my job, too, who are doing very well
as programmers and are getting into management," Hatcher said.
"I felt that if they could do it, so could I."
The popularity of Macon State's IT degree program among women --
who on a national scale tend to be underrepresented in technology
related academic majors -- is a positive sign for a male-dominated
industry facing shortages of qualified professionals to fill the
Despite the rapid growth of professional IT jobs in the U.S., women
held only 28 percent of all such positions in 1999, according to
the Information Technology Association of America. The American
Association of University Women reported recently that only about
25 percent of all computer-science degrees awarded in the U.S. in
2000 went to women, even though well over half of the nation's college
students are female. Computer science is more theory based than
IT, but the numbers still illustrate the challenges of attracting
women to technology related academic majors.
If IT is one of the hottest professions of the new century, generally
offering good career and income potential, why would many women
hesitate to take the plunge?
Various studies and anecdotal evidence point to several explanations.
One is a longstanding notion that girls are less encouraged than
boys to pursue careers related to math, science or technology. Other
reasons include a shortage of female role models in information
technology; unappealing, stereotyped images of computer geeks; and
the notion that IT jobs are lonely and boring and require long hours
that make it difficult for women with children.
Another reason experts suggest is the tendency of some IT program
instructors to focus less on the creative aspects of information
technology and more on the so-called macho world of computer gadgets
Whatever the reasons, Macon State College seems to be transcending
The college launched one of Georgia's first bachelor of science
degrees in IT in 1997, and much of program's rapid growth - from
an initial enrollment of 57 to nearly 700 today - is due to female
students. In addition, many female Macon State students who are
not IT majors are taking multiple information technology courses
as part of other bachelor of science degree programs, such as business,
communications and health information management.
Macon State's success in attracting females to IT could be reflecting
a recent surge, yet to reveal itself in any formal studies or surveys,
in the number of women showing interest in professional information
technology careers. Besides traditional college-age females, many
mid-career women are catching on to the myriad opportunities an
IT degree will open to them.
"I've been working with computers in some shape or fashion
since 1976, but I was always the grunt pushing the keys," said
Julia Owen, 43, a multimedia major and one-time secretary. "I
once had a boss who presented as his own a spreadsheet program that
I had done because he didn't know how to do it - and he was the
one making the big bucks. "I thought to myself, 'What's wrong
with this picture?' I decided it was my turn to be the manager."
Dr. Bill Elieson, Macon State's IT division chair, agrees that
more women are discovering that "information technology is
a profession in which they can find an interesting niche, and in
which they can do well. So it is less daunting than it used to seem.
"I think we're going to begin seeing more women in the professional
IT workforce," he added, "but it will take time to fill
the pipeline. If 100 percent of all IT students were women, it would
still take years for their percentage in the professional workforce
to reach 50 percent."
As president of Women In Technology, one of eight societies of
the Atlanta-based Technology Association of Georgia, Marci McCarthy
also notes that female interest in IT careers is growing along with
a general awareness of what the profession offers as far as creativity
and interacting with others.
"The days of the guy locked in a closet by himself writing
code are over," said McCarthy, director of product management
for SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based Internet security company.
"Most IT careers today require the ability to work in a team-oriented
environment, and more people are beginning to realize that. I've
had more fun in the IT world, and have gotten more opportunities
to meet interesting, intellectual people, than with anything else
Macon State hasn't specifically targeted women in IT program marketing,
but a couple of factors seem to be helping to draw them in.
One, as Hatcher discovered, is the presence of female role models
on the IT faculty. Seven of the 23 full- and part-time faculty are
women, a significant number considering how male-dominated the IT
industry is as a whole.
Sandra Driver, seated, is a Macon State
IT major and a network administrator with Advanced Testing
Technologies Inc. in Warner Robins. Here she visits with ATT's
program manager, Dave Shiplett.
Elizabeth Riley, who joined the Macon State IT faculty last fall
after 16 years in the private sector, said female role models are
important for both women and men.
"Having more women has helped the profession overall,"
said Riley, former systems development manager for The Bibb Company.
"There is more understanding now about people needing to deal
with sick children or handle family crises. Women need to see that
you can manage an IT department and go home and be a wife and mom."
Tina Ashford, an assistant professor in the IT division, has informally
tracked female interest in information technology throughout her
career. When she began teaching 10 years ago at a women's school,
William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., only six students were
majoring in computer information systems (CIS), the program in which
"It was challenging to get women to consider a CIS major,"
Ashford said. "Even at a women's university we had to overcome
that image of CIS being a major for the stereotypical male computer
Ashford said her academic department introduced some courses in
computer basics to generate interest and, by working extra hard
at recruiting, managed to boost the number of information systems
majors to 80 in a couple of years.
A decade later, Ashford can't help but find a little irony in the
fact that some of her male students at Macon State enrolled in the
IT program at the encouragement of their wives or girlfriends who
were already pursuing the degree.
"A lot of our success in attracting both men and women is
due to word-of-mouth promotion from our current students,"
Riley noted that IT is less math-based than it used to be, so some
women - and men, for that matter - who might otherwise have been
intimidated are diving right in.
"You don't have to take four calculus courses these days to
get an IT degree," she said. "You can design networks,
put together PCs, build websites and program in a huge number of
languages without needing to know a lot of math."
The RAFB Factor
Another factor working in Macon State's favor is the proximity
of Robins Air Force Base, where female military and civilian personnel
were well represented in computer-related jobs at a time when it
was rare to find women in similar private sector positions.
Debra K. Walker, civilian director of the Technology and Industrial
Support Directorate at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center at
RAFB, began her IT career as a systems analyst in 1980. She said
that at the time, at least half of the other civilian WRALC workers
in information systems career tracks were women.
"I came along at a time when the federal government was looking
to move more women into professional tracks," said Walker,
a Macon State alumna and board member of the newly formed Central
Georgia Technology Alliance.
"A lot of women who worked at the base realized that an information
systems training track had more advancement potential, so there
was never a problem recruiting women," Walker said. "But
I did notice when dealing with the private contractors we did business
with that there would never be any women working for them."
Macon State's IT degree program, she said, has given female RAFB
employees who learned how to do technology-related work through
their jobs the chance to earn bachelor's degrees to enhance their
One of those women is Jackie Leach, a master sergeant with HQ Air
Force Reserve Command Security Forces and a networking major at Macon
State. Leach, who works in information management at RAFB troubleshooting
computer problems, questions the very notion that the IT field is
not as popular with women.
Elizabeth Riley, an assistant professor
in MSC's IT division, looks over the work of two students
in a recent class
"Most of my female friends in college right now are pursuing
degrees in IT," Leach said. "I think women want the chance
to make a good salary as much as men do, and IT is where the money's
at right now."
The IT environment in private contracting has also gotten friendlier
for women. While she is the only female among the six IT professionals
at her worksite, Macon State programming major Sandra Driver said
her gender has never been an issue.
"IT may have been intimidating for some women in the past,
but I think more and more are comfortable working with computers,"
said Driver, a network administrator for Advanced Testing Technologies,
a government contractor in Warner Robins. "I think there is
a bright future for women in the information technology field."
Riley said that because IT is a relatively young field, salaries
are more equal between men and women than in traditional professions
"where men have been in charge forever.
"Women see the good income they can earn and that there are
lots of IT jobs out there," she said. "I think these days,
women are as equally attracted to IT as men."
Hatcher, the multimedia major who refused to let media headlines
scare her away from an IT career, plans to graduate in spring 2002.
Her goal is to pursue a career in web development.
She hopes to be a role model for anybody, male or female, who still
thinks an IT career means "typing on a computer all day."
"Information technology is so much more than that," Hatcher
said. "I'm very excited to be a part of it."