Women in web design: just the stats

The underrepresentation of women and minorities in the information technology workforce is like the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything.

In February 2007, Jason Kottke called our community on its inertia by publishing information showing the low percentage of female speakers at conferences about design, technology, and the web. One conference he cited was An Event Apart, which I founded with Eric Meyer.

How can conference organizers, employers and educators help our field better reflect the world we live in? One problem in deciding what to do about the issue is that, as is so often the case with matters of equality and justice, surprisingly little is known about the phenomenon or its causes. Feelings and anecdotes are plentiful, facts are scarce.

So An Event Apart commissioned a fact-finding mission. We hired researchers at The New York Public Library to find out everything that is actually known about the percentage of women in our field, and their positions relative to their male colleagues. Because such research could go on indefinitely, we assigned the project a budget and time-frame; researchers worked within those constraints.

The data they mined concerned women and minorities in the information technology (IT) workforce. IT was as close as we could come to our specific field. There is no data on web design and web designers. Web design is twelve years old, employs hundreds of thousands (if not millions), and generates billions, so you’d think there would be some basic research data available on it, but there ain’t. (Maybe A List Apart will gather such data one day, perhaps in collaboration with a logical partner like Boxes and Arrows.)

So the first disclaimer is that our research covers IT, not just web design. The second is that we’re still sifting the data we received. This is nothing like a final report. If a final report emerges, it will come from An Event Apart.

All that out of the way, the picture that emerges is disturbing:

  • Men outnumber women in this workforce by over three to one.
  • The percentage of women employed in the field is declining instead of growing.
  • Women who participate in the field may not be promoted as often or as high as their male colleagues.

Here, briefly cited, is a small portion of “Untapped Talent: Diversity, Competition, and America’s High Tech Future,” a 21 June 2007 special report by the Information Technology Association of America:

This study by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) finds that women and most racial minorities remain significantly underrepresented in today’s U.S information technology (IT) workforce. By examining data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Current Population Surveys, this report, like previous ITA diversity studies conducted in 1998 and 2003, documents the percentages of women and minorities in BLS occupational classifications that comprise the IT workforce in 2004 and compares them to previous years to determine the progression and regression of diversity. The data presentation is followed by a discussion of possible barriers to entry for underrepresented groups and solutions to overcoming those barriers. The report also highlights successful public- and private-sector groups that encourage more diversity and support women and minorities in IT.

The news here is not good: The percentage of women in the IT workforce has declined by 18.5% since 1996, from a high of 41% in 1996 to 32.4% in 2004. This is true even while the percentage of women in the overall workforce remained relatively unchanged. Women are also far less likely to return to the IT workforce….

The declining representation of women is due largely to the fact that one out of every three women in the IT workforce fall into administrative job categories that have experienced significant overall declines in recent years. When those categories are excluded from the analysis, the percentage of women in IT drops from 32.4% to 24.9%. The figures represent no progress in the numbers of women in the professional or management ranks from the relatively low 25.4% mark achieved in 2002. At best, the data suggest that the number of all women in the IT industry is dropping substantially; at worst, these statistics illustrate a situation in which women are failing to advance in the managerial and professional ranks and the IT industry is failing to draw on a critical talent base.

Clearly, there is much to be done. Stay tuned.

[tags]diversity, IT, design, webdesign, women, workforce[/tags]