Women are smashing through the "silicon ceiling" -- just take a look at Fortune magazine's 2012 list of the 50 Most Powerful Women. Among the top 10 women listed, half work in the technology industry.
The presence of powerful women in tech fields could signal the demise of the industry's historically exclusionary culture and lack of mentors, which have deterred women from choosing technical careers. Although there is still not an abundance of female role models, the existing ones are mighty: IBM's Ginni Rometty, Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, to name a few.
In addition, some techie women are not waiting for the corporate silicon ceiling to crack; instead, they are taking charge and starting their own companies. On Fortune's 2012 list of the 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs, four started technology-related companies. These enterprises join the growing sector of 8.1 million women-owned businesses in the United States, which generate $1.3 trillion in revenue and employ nearly 7.7 million people. For a forthcoming book on women's leadership, Apollo Research Institute interviewed more than 200 professional women and found women leaders and entrepreneurs are embracing technology in a wide variety of sectors, including small business.
Slowly increasing women's bandwidth
That entrepreneurial spirit among tech-focused women is a positive trend, considering that for decades, this male-dominated industry has not been particularly female-friendly. Among chief executives in the top 100 tech firms, only 6% are women, and women make up just 22% of the software engineers in tech firms overall, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). In 2011, only 5.5% of employed women were working in computer and mathematical occupations, and in most technology-related sectors, men outnumber women about three to one, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand opportunities for women and business.
In the 1970s and '80s, women made some initial strides in technology, and with the dot.com boom of the '90s, companies sought to retain and attract more women, Catalyst says in its 2008 report, "Women in Technology: Maximizing Talent, Minimizing Barriers." The organization found that 91% of responding member companies in the IT category had diversity-focused programs or activities designed specifically for women in the United States, and more than one-half of them had programs or activities for their female employees in every region of the world.
Despite these efforts, women's numbers in the technology industry have remained relatively flat or even fallen slightly. For example, the percentage of computing and mathematical occupations held by women in 2000 was 30%, falling to 27% in 2006.
Growing a strong future STEM
Nevertheless, the future outlook for women in technology is positive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth for computer and mathematical sciences occupations through 2018 to lead all other occupations at 22%. Women are likely to be competitive for those jobs, as 57.1% of females seeking higher education are studying in the fields of science, math, computing, engineering, manufacturing and construction fields, according to Catalyst's count in 2010.
Women who enter the technology field make a significant difference in the industry, too. Women-run start-up companies use an average of 40% less capital than start-ups run by men, and tend to have successful initial public stock offerings, according to Cindy Padnos, founder of Illuminate Ventures, which invests in women-led start-ups. Similarly, MIT management professor Tom Malone found that collective intelligence within an organization is directly related to a workgroup's diversity and how many women are included.
With these positive signals, women should be encouraged to give the technology industry a second look. That's exactly the message high-tech entrepreneurs Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky want women to hear. Writing in TechCrunch, they believe a technology career not only can be financially lucrative, but also one in which women can actually "have it all." Why? Because the tech world values flexibility and innovative thinking, working remotely is more acceptable than in other industries, younger generations raised with egalitarian values dominate technology startups, and the industry is ripe for on-the-job learning.
Add to these factors Fortune's powerful examples at the top, and you have a rich and engaging environment in which women can thrive.
Follow Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti on Twitter: www.twitter.com/traceywilen