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Women's Careers Determined By Culture Not Biology

May 24 2006 - The diversity of today's workforce is a challenge to information-technology organizations with "one-size-fits-all" policies, especially when it comes to women employees, according to recent research.

"Policy makers, educators, managers need to recognize that you can't generalize to all women," said Dr. Eileen Trauth, professor at Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology and Technology (IST) in the USA. "There is far too much variation in the paths that women take for anyone to assume that women's career motivations are the same, their methods of balancing work and family are the same, or their responses to motherhood are the same."

Dr. Trauth interviewed 167 women working in IT in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the United States. The women also had a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The study is described in a paper, "Cross-Cultural Influences on Women in the IT Workforce," presented recently at the 2006 ACM conference on computer-personnel research held in Pomona, California. The paper was co-written with Jeria Quesenberry and Haiyan Huang, both doctoral students at IST.

Eileen Trauth said that the interviews suggested women's career choices were influenced by a wide range of factors including gender stereotypes, societal messages and family dynamics. Additionally, she also found a wide range of responses to motherhood, career and educational choices and gender stereotypes. These reinforced Dr. Trauth's belief that recognizing such diversity may result in more opportunities for women.

"What would be inappropriate is to look at a young woman and presume that she will get married, or that she will have children or that she will leave the workforce if she does have children," said Trauth, paraphrasing the experience of one her interviewees. "Organizations shouldn't have HR policies based on gender stereotypes because people are motivated by different things-salary, job security, flexible work schedules."

The US interviews also formed the basis of another paper, "Understanding the 'Mommy Tracks': A Framework for Analyzing Work-Family Balance in the IT Workforce" published in the Information Resources Management Journal (April-June 2006). In this paper, Quesenberry, Trauth and Allison Morgan - also an IST doctoral student - contend that women working in IT in the USA have devised a variety of strategies to balance their work-family responsibilities. Some feature in the workplace - such as flexible hours - while others focus on the home, including supportive partners, spouses and parents. Because of such differences, Dr. Trauth holds that employers should not establish a single "parenthood track" for employees.

The researchers also highlighted a number of significant differences in the way culture influences career choices. For example:

  • Referring to a woman interested in IT as a "geek" is a compliment in China.
  • Information technology jobs are seen as "clean" work in Ireland
  • Women's exam scores determine careers in India - unless they are members of the highest social class who are not expected to work.

According to Dr. Treuth, stereotyping may be one reason for the under-representation of women in the American IT workforce. A survey conducted in 2004 found that women account for only 32.4% of IT workers, compared with 41% in 1996.

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