Every office has them, the cubicle-hoppers who tinker with desktop computers, laptops, tablets and phones.
These information technology professionals, the “I-T guys,” rescue bosses and co-workers when operator error or glitches require solutions more complicated than Control-Alt-Delete.
It’s the unfortunate but typical accuracy of “guys” that presents a problem. As in many science and technology fields, women hold only about a quarter of all computer-related jobs nationally. They earn only 18 percent of computer science degrees, though they earn more than half of all U.S. college diplomas.
But this predicament also is an opportunity, because federal data show that the demand for information technology workers is booming. By 2020, employers will need a projected 1 million more IT workers than there are U.S. students studying computer science.
They need men and women who can work with data across industries — banking, agriculture, economics, media, construction, medicine and education. Nonprofits need them as much as the Fortune 500.
That’s why national and regional efforts like the “Women in IT Initiative” at the University of Nebraska at Omaha are encouraging. Already, UNO has met its first goal of raising $250,000. It has received the support from a number of local heavyweights, including Gallup, ConAgra and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska.
Donor money will help fund mentorship programs for female IT students, early exposure and immersion programs for middle and high school students, along with scholarships and internships. Reaching out to middle school girls is vital, as girls’ attitudes tend to harden against IT careers by high school if they aren’t exposed to the field, said Sandy Vlasnik, coordinator of UNO’s Women in IT Engagement Link and an instructor.
Campus leaders hope to raise $400,000 over the next two years to help UNO double the number of female undergraduates in its College of Information Science & Technology. Just 14 percent of the college’s 1,022 students are women. With help getting the word out, doubling enrollment should be achievable. It shouldn’t be hard to market education in fields that pay a $20,000 premium above what the typical UNO graduate earns.
It also shouldn’t be hard to sell businesses on hiring qualified IT graduates who happen to be women, not when research suggests that diverse IT teams tend to see higher returns on investment.
The challenge, officials say, is getting women and girls — as well as more men and boys — to see beyond the stereotype of IT fields as an isolated existence writing computer code at night in dark back rooms.
Nearly every field requires data. Nearly every field needs coders. Nearly every field needs the technologically literate. It’s a time when people interested in IT fields can chart their own paths, from field work in archeology to stats analysis for the National Football League.
“I still hear that IT is not for women and it drives me crazy,” UNO dean of Information Science & Technology Hesham Ali said. “If they could see our labs and see the amount of contributions that women here have in our projects ... they would definitely give it a look.”
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with “I-T guys.” Employers need thousands more of them, too. But it would have to be good for business if the next generation of cubicle hoppers, data miners and mobile application code writers reflects the wider workforce.