Women represent nearly half the workers in the U.S. — 46.6 percent. However, they always have been underrepresented in I.T. Even more discouraging is the fact that the percentage of women working in I.T. jobs is not growing but dropping.

That is bad news indeed for employers seeking hard-to-find technical candidates and the women who might otherwise fill those well-paying jobs.

“Skill obsolescence is the number one issue for I.T. workers,” Professor Deb Armstrong of the University of Arkansas told NewsFactor. And it turns out, according to a study by Armstrong and her colleagues, that certain facts of women’s lives make staying ahead of the game harder than it is for men.

About a decade ago, women’s place in the I.T. employment world was about even with their numbers in the workforce at large. In 1996, women comprised 41 percent of I.T. workers. By 2002, however, that figure had dropped to 35 percent, and, according to Armstrong, the downward spiral is gaining momentum.

For male workers, the challenges inherent in I.T. jobs create a feedback loop — a balance that must be maintained and managed, but that has basically one dimension. For women, however, the very job qualities that strong I.T. employees crave — challenging projects and rapid, successive skill acquisition — are causing even more stress.

Thus, women are forced to balance not only job and family, but also contradictions within their relationship to I.T. work itself. They, too, like to keep their skills well-honed and take on interesting and high-profile projects. But those very characteristics of I.T. jobs may be the ones that finally push them out of the field — and they are leaving, voluntarily, in droves.

Whereas the work-family conflict exists for men working in I.T. as well as women, Armstrong and her colleagues found that for women the conflict has three, rather than two, elements: a cyclic (as opposed to reciprocal) nature of the work-family balance, the importance of particular I.T. job qualities (such as project orientation), and the importance of a flexible work schedule.

While women tend to indicate the same needs for challenging work and have the same ambitions as their male I.T. worker counterparts, some aspects of their lives simply make achieving the balance more difficult.

For example, women tend to take maternity leaves when their children are born. Even if that leave is only a couple of months long, much could have changed by the time the woman returns to her desk. Imagine the increased stress for her if an enterprise software update occurs in her absence, for instance.

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