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A league of their own: for women in information technology, 'soft' skills mean hard cash. But who's going after the prize? - Technology Report




One might say the headquarters of InfiniEdge Software has, well, a woman's touch. To get there, you drive down more than one winding road in Prairieville, past oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.

Look for a clapboard house with a white picket fence and roses--the kinds that have birth dates and fancy names like Gingersnap, Black Magic and Lover's Lane. If you've got an eye for detail, you may note that the flora ringing the company's signpost matches the lettering of the logo.

"Landscaping is my stress relief," says Czarina Walker, owner of InfiniEdge.

The office is homey. There's a kitchen with metal pots and pans hanging overhead. Vases of roses--the award-winning ones from out front--sit on every surface. Out back, on a generous porch, slow fans stir the grassy air.

This is not your usual computer programming shop. What makes InfiniEdge even more unique, though, is that four members of the company's five-person staff are female.

That's 80 percent.

In the world of information technology, that's the reverse of the typical male-to-female ratio. According to Brainbench Inc., a national IT testing company based in Chantilly, Va., just 24 percent of those in the U.S. seeking their software certification in 2001 were women.

Yet in a salary survey of more than 6,000 IT professionals, the company also found that women are fast becoming top earners in the IT sector. The percentage of women earning more than $150,000 now equals that of men.

The picture is even brighter at the biggest computer companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Cisco. The national survey showed twice as many women as men pulling in $150,000 or more at giant firms with sales of at least $5 billion.

"Female IT professionals are thriving in big business environment," said Mike Russiello, president and chief executive of Brainbench.

Why? "When you've reached an executive position in IT, your technology skills remain important but your ability to communicate and work as a member of a management team become probably more important. I guess this is a sign that women have strengths in those areas and that it pays off for them."

Liz Ryan, chief executive of World Women in Technology, an online networking forum for professional women in technology, agrees.

"Women can actually do better if they can get into management roles, where they're not just wanted for their technical savvy but can actually do more of the boundary spanning between departments-more nurturing, more coaching, more problem solving," she says.

Skills traditionally thought of as feminine--networking, nurturing and relationship building, for instance--often spell the difference between a healthy company and a Dilbert cartoon, Ryan says.

"What's going on in that incredibly dysfunctional, hopefully fictional, company is that it's not that they have technical problems, it's that they have management problems. They have cultural and organizational problems. So budgets get cut and managers do stupid things to cover their rear ends. And there's all kinds of posturing and ridiculous performance reviews and systems that nobody believes in."

At InfiniEdge, Walker looks for new hires who can communicate well and write seamless programs. "My clients say they like the way we do things because they can understand what we're saying," she says in plain English.

When it was time to expand, Walker didn't consciously try to hire a lot of women. It just happened that the applicants who had the exact blend of skills she was seeking were women.

Many women discover IT mid-career. The flexibility of the profession makes it a natural choice for stay-at-home moms. That's what drew Daphne Newman.

A mechanical engineer by training, Newman moved to Baton Rouge three years ago. When she arrived, she decided not to look for a job in engineering. "I had two young children and neither of them were in school yet," she said.

Newman taught herself computer programming. Last year, she joined the InfiniEdge staff part time. "I'm taking a lot of online computer courses. And on the message boards, I've noticed a lot of stay-at-home moms are pursuing careers, or at least trying to learn different programming languages with the hopes of getting into a career," she said.

Still, others in the profession say it remains a boy's club. More than once, Walker has been mistaken for being the new secretary while installing software. "At one plant, someone asked me to type something for him," she says rolling her eyes.

Women in computer professions sometimes get attention for anything but their mental powers. Take, for example, the controversial "Top Ten Most Beautiful Women in Chicago Technology," a series being published in the Chicago Webzine, E-prairie.

This month's edition features Jessica Boggs, creative director of software firm AlphaZeta Inc. There are slick photographs of Boggs tossing her long, curly hair and giggling.

Most women in the industry are less than amused by this. piece, but Joan Korenman, director of the Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, keeps an open mind.

"The only good thing that can be said for it is that there is a geek stereotype that turns a lot of young women off from going into the field," she says. "If girls see attractive women in computers, maybe their perceptions will change."

They've got a long way to go, baby. In 2001, 184 men and 45 women (or less than 20 percent) earned an undergraduate degree in computer science from LSU. Right now, the undergraduate ratio in the department is 82 percent male, 18 percent female.

Both Walker, 25, and Newman, 36, recall being one of only two or three women in their technical undergraduate classes.

Newman said being in the minority gave her a rush. "When you would tell people that you were an engineer, they would be very surprised. They'd get this look of shock on their faces. And then I think the second thought was, 'She's probably not very good at it.' And so when I'd prove to them that I was good at it--when I'd get high grades--it made me feel good."

Not everyone agrees with that take.

"I'm in the Society of Women Engineers here at school, and it's so depressing," writes a 22-year-old student from an unnamed university who goes by the alias "Spacefem" on Ghyx.org, a cheeky, informal networking site for young women in technology.

"What's wrong with the world that tech fields are so unbalanced?" Spacefem writes. "Are our parents giving us the idea that it's important for our little brothers to learn about math and play in car engines, but not us?"

"Spacefem" might be onto something.

Early immersion in technology paves the way for a career in that sector, says Russiello of Brainbench. "Most people choose an IT career fairly early. If an influence comes across to them either through their education or at home or some kind of club earlier, then more of them are going to go into it."

Access is key. Studies have shown that girls who have regular keyboard time are more apt to embrace what computers can do for them, says Sister Judith Brun, principal of St. Joseph's Academy.

In 1999, the all-girls high school made laptops a requirement for incoming freshmen. This came at no small cost to parents, who footed the bill. Financial assistance was offered to those who couldn't afford it, The goal? To bring technology into young women's lives.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a group of senior business students at the Academy worked on an online advertising campaign. In American History, girls perused the class syllabus online. Teachers run online study sessions in the evenings and answer after-class questions from students by e-mail,

Rebecca Seymour, 17, was a member of the guinea pig freshman class. Now a junior, she sat recently against a row of army green lockers as she voted for student council online. "I don't write any notes on paper anymore," she says. "It's much faster to type them when the teacher's talking."

In conjunction with LSU, the Academy was just awarded a National Science Foundation grant to track what factors drive women to choose ca reers in computers.

Andrea Houston, the principal investigator for the grant and assistant professor in LSU's Department of Information Systems and Decision Sciences, is encouraged by what's going on at St. Joseph's.

"Tech language is like a foreign language," she says. "If you want to learn French, the best thing you can do is be in a French-speaking environment. The same goes for technological education. The best thing you can do is to create an environment in which you are using the tools."

It's too early to tell, but Brun anticipates more of her students will go into IT as a result of being immersed in it. "Women have not been at the table of technology," she says. "Until we can be at all the tables, the world will not be complete."

[GRAPH OMITTED]

RELATED ARTICLE: LSU COMPUTER-RELATED ENROLLMENT

More males are enrolled in computer-related majors at LSU

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