Women's career choices influenced more by culture than biology

May 16, 2006

The diversity of today's American workforce challenges information-technology organizations that have "one-size-fits-all" policies, and nowhere is that more evident than with women employees, says a Penn State researcher.

"Policy makers, educators, managers need to recognize that you can't generalize to all women," said Dr. Eileen Trauth, professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). "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."

Trauth conducted interviews with 167 women who were working in IT in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the United States. Besides their place of residence, the women also represented a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Those interviews suggested women's career choices were influenced by a wide range of factors including gender stereotypes, societal messages and family dynamics, Trauth said. But she also recorded a wide range of responses to the motherhood, career and educational choices and gender stereotypes, reinforcing her belief that recognizing such diversity may yield 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 one interviewee's experience. "Organizations shouldn't have HR policies based on gender stereotypes because people are motivated by different things-salary, job security, flexible work schedules."

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, Calif. The other authors were Jeria Quesenberry and Haiyan Huang, both doctoral students in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology.

The interviews with women in the United States also were the basis of another paper, "Understanding the 'Mommy Tracks': A Framework for Analyzing Work-Family Balance in the IT Workforce" published in the April-June 2006 issue of the Information Resources Management Journal.

In this article, Quesenberry, Trauth and Allison Morgan-another IST doctoral student-argue that American women working in IT have devised a number of strategies to balance work-family responsibilities. Some of those occur in the workplace-such as flexible hours-and some at home-such as supportive partners, spouses and parents.

Because of those differences, Trauth argues against organizations establishing a single "parenthood track" for employees. The researchers also saw significant differences in the influence of culture on career choices. In China, for instance, to refer to a woman interested in IT as a "geek" is a compliment. In Ireland, IT work is seen as "clean" work while in India, women's exam scores determine their careers-unless they are members of the highest social class who are not expected to work.

The Penn State researcher said the stereotyping of women may be one reason for the under-representation of women in the American IT workforce. A 2004 industry survey indicated that women account for only 32.4 percent of IT workers. That is a decline from 1996 when 41 percent of IT workers were women.
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Penn State

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