The percentage of women working in the information technology field has always been relatively low, but it didn’t used to be as low as it is now.
It peaked at 31 percent in 1990, then declined by about 6 percent over the past decade, even as the percentage of women in other occupations has steadily risen. That’s just one notable metric from a new Census Bureau report released last week that provides a bird’s-eye view of the changing field of computer work since the 1970s.
The report also shows that most IT workers tend to be young, male and often foreign-born, and that the field has grown considerably in size and complexity as technology becomes increasingly important.
The report found the number of IT jobs has grown from 450,000 in 1970 to 4.6 million in 2014, which accounts for 2.9 percent of the labor force. Additionally, IT work has become increasingly diverse, growing from three categories in the 1970s to 12 in 2014, reflecting new professions within the field.
“In these early years, computers were large, expensive mainframes mostly used by governments, research laboratories, and manufacturing firms,” the report said, citing the mid-1970s as the beginning of the personal-computer boom. “As the market expanded, so did the demand for IT workers.”
IT jobs identified in the 1970s included computer programmers, systems analysts and computer specialists. As the field grew in size in the following decades, jobs such as database administrators, information security analysts and Web developers were born. The report also reflects not just new jobs but also old ones that have been classified more accurately.
Wages in the IT field have grown in the past four decades for men and women. In the ’70s, men were paid a median of $74,180, which jumped to $80,895 in 2014. The field represents a rare net rise in earnings – wages for men across all professions have gone down over the same timeline, according to the census report.
For women, wages have grown in IT and across all other professions, although median wages for women are overall lower than for men. In 1970, the median wage for women working in IT jobs was $57,315, and in 2014 it jumped to $70,385. Clearly, the wage gap has closed slightly over the years, but it persists. A breakdown of wage and gender on a specific job level reveals that the wage gap tends to be bigger where there are more women employed. For example, for the job of database administrator, which has the most equal breakdown of genders within the IT field, the gender wage gap was the highest. The wage gap along with the drop in female workers in IT, which decreased from 31 percent to 25 percent since the ’90s, shows that issues surrounding lack of women in tech persist.
The report also projects that the field will grow by 18 percent by 2022, although the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational handbook has the industry’s growth at 12 percent by 2022.
While the growth in industry jobs is irrefutable, some experts, including Ronil Hira, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), aren’t impressed by these numbers in context.
“Given the large amount of IT spending by all companies and the outsized role that IT plays in consumers’ lives, employment in the sector should be much higher,” he said, citing recent layoffs and the trend of offshoring IT jobs to less expensive countries as examples that the industry might be more unstable than the report suggests.
Cisco announced 5,500 layoffs last week on the heels of Intel’s 12,000 layoffs and Dell’s 10,000 worker cuts, adding to a total of 63,000 IT job losses this year alone. Hira said that many of the jobs are going abroad to places such as India. “The next generation of IT jobs will be created in those countries rather than the U.S.,” he predicted.
Hira is also concerned with the IT field’s tendency to hire young, foreign-born workers.
The census report shows that more than half of all IT workers are between the ages of 25 and 44 and that 24 percent are foreign-born. Hira suspects that a number of these employees are guest workers employed under H1-B or L-1 visas. These workers tend to be young, male and, despite being highly skilled, are employed in the United States under uncertain conditions and at considerably lower pay.
While the census report does not dive into the number of IT workers who have guest visas, EPI’s own analysis has estimated that about two-thirds of all hires each year are employed under guest-worker visas.
“This drives down wages and harms working conditions for Americans and immigrants alike because H-1B workers are paid less,” Hira said. “It reduces incentives to make IT more inclusive demographically, and reduces incentives to invest in training and retraining for incumbent workers.”