Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Successful Women in IT: Balancing Work and Family

Computer World has an interesting article that profiles four women who have had success in information technology (IT). The representation of women in the IT industry has actually been declining over the past 20 years. The article points to the geeky stereotypes, the long hours and the often sexist atmosphere. So what "made IT work" for the profiled women?

While working at a big consulting firm, and later at a software company, Monique McKeon - a married mother of two - found little support for her desire for a balance between work and home. She found what she was looking for at The Chubb Corp, where she is an application manager. Her advice:

You can balance an IT career with your home life, but it means making choices that are true to your priorities and understanding the trade-offs. “Having it all” is a fantasy.
Katy Dickinson has worked at Sun Microsystems since 1984, and is now Director of business process architecture, CTO organization and Sun Labs. She is currently married with two teenagers, but spent several years there as a single mother.
It’s not unusual to be the only woman at a meeting, she says, and because of that, there’s often a tendency to remain silent unless you think you have something really remarkable to say. “As one member of a small group, you feel you have no right to be mediocre,” Dickinson says. “You’re not just representing yourself; you’re representing [females] with a capital F.”

But Sun’s culture is friendly to women, particularly in its flexibility about working from home, she says. And sometimes she is so well accepted that male co-workers seem to forget her gender. “I’ve been in meetings with executives, who, when I say I have to pick up the kids, have almost responded, ‘Can’t you have your wife do it?’” she recalls. The flip side of that acceptance is peer pressure not to take advantage of the workplace flexibility that’s available. And that doesn’t always come from men, she says. “I’ve seen women try to out-boy the boys and be much less supportive” of the need to balance work and family, she says.

Her advice is to find a mentor who understands how to achieve life-work balance, and to network with other women IT professionals. (For more about Dickinson's work and family, check out her blog.)

Donna Lamberth, IS manager at L.L. Bean Information Services, was fortunate to have a boss who felt that “The work is 24/7, but the expectation can’t be that you’re working 24/7.” That gave her the flexibility to spend time with her kids in, for example, the afternoon, knowing that she could go back to work in the evening.
At L.L.Bean, Lamberth says, women are definitely not in the minority. Her boss is a woman, and of the eight-member leadership team in her division, only two are men. “I sit in an awful lot of meetings that are exclusively women,” she says. “Within our own department, the glass ceiling appears to be broken. It’s easy enough to find female friends and mentors. Of places that I have worked, I would say that L.L.Bean appears to me to be the most neutral in terms of gender being a factor in a person’s ability to get work done or advance in the organization.
Lamberth's advice is to find women in senior IT positions to be role models or mentors.

Finally, Robin Beck is CIO at the University of Pennsylvania. There she found a culture that was more supportive of work-family balance than her previous position at General Electric. Now she is excited to mentor younger women in IT. Her advice:
Be very clear with your employer on your priorities and the schedule that works best for you. The same goes for your family. Ask them for help in making changes that will work better for you. For many women, it takes courage, personally and professionally, to tell people you need help.
Now, if I were in IT, I wouldn't find this article particularly heartening. The advice seems to be to move from job to job until you find one that suits your lifestyle, and find a helpful more senior woman to be your mentor, a task that is easier said than done.

The issue of balancing work and family is a difficult one for women. Women are usually expected to be the primary caregivers, even if they work full time. I suspect that many women would require less flexibility in the workplace if their spouses or partners took care of their share of the parenting and housekeeping duties. (Note that that isn't to say there aren't men who take on those duties, but the reality is that the average woman still does more of the housework than the average man.)

For more discussion, check out the comment thread at Feministing, where a number of women (and men) talk about their own experiences in IT.

Related articles in the same issue of Computer World:
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Anonymous said...

I'm glad MeKeon says that it's not possible to "have it all." You can't imagine how many arguments I've had with people about that very idea. I firmly believe that there's never a perfect balance between work, family, and personal time. You have to prioritize what's important for you at this point in time knowing that things will change. And another thing, "all" means different things to different people. For me, there my ambition in all areas of my life will always cause some sort of conflict. But I'm ok with that.