CRA Logo

About CRA



Government Affairs






What's New



The Supply of Information Technology Workers in the United States

Chapter 7: Women, Minorities, and Older Workers

Several groups of Americans are represented in the information technology (IT) workforce in percentages that are far lower than their percentages in the population as a whole. These include African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women generally. There are also open questions about the representation of older workers in the IT workforce.

How Do Women Relate to the Worker Shortage?

If the number of women in the IT workforce were increased to equal the number of men, even the tremendous shortages of IT workers noted in the ITAA studies could be filled. However, according to the Department of Commerce, only 1.1 percent of undergraduate women choose IT-related disciplines as compared to 3.3 percent of male undergraduates.

Tables 7-1 and 7-2 provide statistics about the percentage of women being educated in IT fields. Table 7-1 shows the number of women in formal degree programs in computer and information science at all U.S. colleges and universities, whereas table 7-2 shows the number of women in formal degree programs in computer science and computer engineering at only the Ph.D.-granting institutions. Table 7-2 works from a smaller sample, but it provides more current information. The percentages of women in bachelor's and master's programs are much lower in table 7-2, which is attributed not to any methodological problem with either data set, but rather to the fact that table 7-1 includes information systems degrees and table 7-2 does not. There is anecdotal evidence that women are entering information systems programs in greater percentages than computer science and computer engineering programs. The reason given is that information systems is perceived as more people-oriented and more attuned to the uses of information technology, whereas computer science and computer engineering are more focused on the technology itself.82

One of the obvious patterns in these two exhibits is that the percentage of women entering the computer science pipeline and earning the bachelor's degree in these IT fields has been dropping steadily since 1984. While the number of computer and information science degrees awarded decreased every year between 1986 and 1994, the decrease is occurring at a faster rate proportionately for women. This is in contrast to general trends in the graduation figures of U.S. colleges and universities during these same years, when the percentage of bachelor's degree recipients who were women increased from 50.8 percent to 54.6 percent. It is also in contrast to the trends in scientific and engineering disciplines generally. The decrease in bachelor's degrees awarded to women has also affected the number of women in the graduate degree pipeline, contributing to the decrease in women completing a master's degree in the computer and information sciences area. The percentages at the doctoral level have stayed somewhat flat, with a reduction in the number of U.S. women apparently offset by an increase in the number of female foreign students entering the system at the graduate level. There are no reliable data on the number of women in the IT workforce.

The decline in women engaging in formal IT training since 1984 is in sharp contrast to the pattern of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that period, concerted efforts were made to recruit women to the field, and these efforts resulted in a rapid increase in the number of women students. Thus the subsequent decline in the percentage of women entering the field is especially disheartening. However, the experience of the early 1980s shows that programmatic efforts can make a significant difference. There has been much speculation about the causes for the decline in women entering the IT training pipeline.83 Some of the reasons that have been suggested include:

How Do Minorities Relate to the Worker Shortage?

The number of persons from most minority groups either training or working in information technology occupations is very low. One probable reason is the small number of minority students moving through the educational pipeline. Considering only those students who graduate from college, the percentages of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics receiving a degree in computer or information science is actually higher than the percentage among non-Hispanic white males. However, this promising statistic is more than offset by the fact that minorities attend college in much lower percentages than whites do. Table 7-3 shows the low percentages of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans training in IT-related disciplines.

Many of the reasons that discourage women from IT careers also apply to minorities. There are very few minority role models in information technology. Minority students are less likely to have computers at home or at school on which to gain early exposure to information technology.84 Students who attend historically black colleges and universities face limited computing facilities, compared with the average U.S. college or university. But there are other reasons as well. For example, minority students who want to devote their lives to helping their communities do not regard information technology as a social-conscience field. Students with that goal are much more likely to train for careers in law, medicine, or politics.

One intriguing piece of anecdotal evidence is that African Americans who have received doctoral degrees in computer science over the past decade have overwhelmingly chosen (more than 90 percent) industrial rather than academic careers. Speculation is that companies have done a better job than universities at making diversity an integral part of their organizational values and salaries are better. Also, minority employees are more likely to be able to get on with their work in companies without being burdened by heavy committee workloads that they would experience in universities that are reaching out for diverse representation.

How Do Older Workers Relate to the Worker Shortage?

There is a common perception that information technology is an occupation for younger workers. We all have the image of the young programmer staying awake on massive doses of caffeine while undertaking a thirty-six-hour programming session. There is some truth to this image. Programming is increasingly becoming a skilled entry-level position, and many of the programming positions-but by no means all of them-are populated by recent college graduates.

There is a less savory side to this image, however-that of the programmer being washed up and put out of a job by the uncaring employer by the age of 40. How are older information technology workers treated? Unfortunately, there is very little credible evidence on which to judge. Given the high demand for IT workers and the premium that companies claim they place on teamwork, communication skills, and knowledge of the business and industry, one would expect companies to welcome older workers. It has been reported to us that less than two percent of programmers over age 40 are unemployed, but we have been unable to track down the hard data to support this statement.

If one considers older unemployed workers in other professions who want to become IT workers, the scant and anecdotal evidence presents a much less rosy picture. The downsizing of the defense industry and of corporate America more generally during the 1980s created unemployment for a significant number of electrical engineers. The IEEE-USA has recently completed a survey of its unemployed members, although the sample size is small (335 of 1,288 = 26 percent). Their study indicates that-holding constant highest degree, Internet access, dependence of job on government funding, whether respondent is retired/voluntarily unemployed, and type of job search technique-each year of age above 45 adds three weeks to the duration of unemployment.85 The IEEE has been appropriately cautious in reading evidence of age discrimination into these statistics:

Overall, the survey indicates that age has a persistent effect on the duration of unemployment, but it cannot be determined whether that is attributable to productivity differences, price differences, age discrimination or some other factor. For example, the longest duration of unemployment occurs in the defense industry and the second longest unemployment period occurs in the aerospace industry. Older engineers are more likely to be working in aerospace and defense and these industries are more likely than others to rely on government funding; therefore industry, and not age alone, can account for unemployment.86

Given the lack of statistical data or other close examination of this issue, the study group looks forward to the results of the recently inaugurated National Research Council study that will include an examination of older workers. Until then, all discussion of this issue is likely to be speculative.



Copyright © 2004 Computing Research Association. All Rights Reserved. Questions? E-mail:

Document last modified on Wednesday, 04-Apr-2012 06:51:20 PDT.