Where have all the women gone?

Weary of answering late-night alerts and troubleshooting calls, Bethany King finally had enough. Six months ago, she closed the book on a 12-year stretch as an IT storage administration professional to become an IT auditor.

“I had a 14-year-old daughter that I didn’t want to leave alone at 3 a.m.,” said King, who was allowed to shift to the more flexible IT job at The Empire District Electric Co., a Joplin, Mo.-based electricity supplier.

“That really was one of the reasons I got out. I could’ve made it work, but it’s just a choice that I made not to,” she added, noting that her husband is a firefighter who works various shifts.

King, who attended this week’s Storage Networking World (SNW) conference, co-sponsored by Computerworld and the Storage Networking Industry Association, is one example of what some attendees said could become a major problem for organizations — the alarming number of women who are currently abandoning IT jobs like storage administration that require workers to be on-call at virtually all hours. Some attendees noted that not only are women leaving such jobs, few are showing interest in joining the expanding profession.

The U.S. economy is expected to add 1.5 million IT jobs by 2012, according to Department of Labor statistics. At the same time, Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that by 2012, 40 per cent of women now in the IT workforce will move away from technical career paths to pursue more flexible business, functional, and research and development careers.

That projection doesn’t bode well for satisfying the projected future demand for skilled women to help diversify and round out teams that run and maintain storage environments — and the managers that oversee those teams.

Dot Brunette, network and storage manager at Meijer Inc., a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer and a 30-year IT veteran, said that women are tending to migrate out of IT-related storage jobs because of their long hours and the demands that users of such technology can place upon them.

“IT is very much a culture and it consumes a lot of time,” said Brunette. “I think women in that regard are at a real disadvantage.” She noted that companies can fail to attract female workers, or see them leave key IT jobs because they fail “to provide day care at work, or work-at-home options for someone who leaves to have a child.”

Brunette manages a staff of 10 employees — including only one woman — who oversee Tivoli Storage Manager and other tape storage tools in Meijer’s IT operation.

Serge Mukoka, technical infrastructure team lead at San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron Corp., said that he has difficulty finding and recruiting women to become part of the infrastructure group at the energy company.

“What I like about [working in an IT storage] environment is it’s very performance driven, so we get to look at new stuff all the time — but even that doesn’t seem to be help us retain female candidates,” said Mukoka. “We [also] have a hard time finding them. I definitely see a challenge there for us.”

Lisa Johnson, manager of systems at Irvine, Calif.-based media company Freedom Communications Inc., and an IT administrator for the past 15 years, said that she believes women in IT can provide a crucial balance within groups. “Men are usually fascinated by technology, where women take it as a tool to enhance what they’re doing,” Johnson said.

“Women are definitely more communicative.”

Johnson said that she currently manages three women and seven men. She added that she thinks mentor relationships, team building and training are critical to help keep women interested in the IT field.

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