Whenever a journalist asks whether or why women hate IT, grumps trot out the usual laundry list of cliches and stereotypes about women's supposed genetic disposition against math and science, the lack of role models or the profession's geeky image. It is a problem that more women are not choosing technology careers, but I think we'll solve it only if we start asking the right question: Why should women want to be in IT?
Enterprise IT is a fantastic field for women, especially young women, to consider, especially now. Why? Because much of the work capitalises on women's greatest strengths - communication, collaboration and problem solving - and because a looming worker shortage means the supply-demand balance will tip toward more frenzied recruiting. But ask CIOs whether they think the field is adequately marketed and correctly described, and they admit that it suffers from an outdated image, inadequate promotion, and misperceptions about exactly what the work is.
One of the biggest reasons why women don't choose careers in enterprise IT is that the field is poorly defined. Can anyone say what the heck we are talking about when we say "IT"? Is it the software industry - a la Microsoft, technology consulting, game design, mapping software, database management, hardware or chip design? Or is it the field of professionals who provide the infrastructure, applications, technology operations and strategy that enable today's enterprises to function and change?
Advocates for boosting the number of women in this large and amorphous tech world (including professional organisations like Women in Technology International, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology) inadvertently blur this distinction.
They want to boost the presence and stature of technical women across the board: women in computing, women in science and engineering, and girls who are interested in math and science. To get girls excited about the fun of tech, they talk about science fairs and robotics. For the sake of discussion, let's call that wing of the profession computer engineering.
I agree that attracting more girls and women is a must for the technical workforce that invents new tools, games, devices, software and hardware (to be used and consumed by, among others, women). But this emphasis on programming, robotics, computer science and engineering won't get women interested in working for your IT organisation. In fact, it is exactly that tech focus that obscures the true nature of enterprise IT jobs (which we'll call business technology) and the background and skills necessary to excel at them.