Though IT remains largely a male-dominated realm in the United States, women are now believed to constitute 15% to 25% of technical professionals -- though women's ranks in management are about only 8%.
A rare few, Eva Chen among them, have made it to the top.
"I was always interested in writing programs, I wrote Fortran and Cobol," says Chen, CEO of Trend Micro, who recalls she was a typical code-writing "geek" when she founded Trend with her sister and brother-in-law in 1988 after coming from Taipei for graduate study at the University of Texas.
Chen, studying international business management, was involved in projects at the university's computer lab using an IBM 4381, and "I wanted to be the teaching assistant." But the lab teacher said she had to focus on getting a degree in information systems to do that. So she did, and that helped put her on a path to found Trend Micro, becoming its chief technical officer, which eventually involved managing 1,200 engineers.
"I remember saying I couldn't handle more than 10," Chen says, "then it grew." In 2004, Chen became CEO of publicly traded Trend Micro, today one of the larger antimalware security vendors with a global presence.
When it comes to sources of inspiration, Chen says she's thankful for a family that voiced belief in what women could do, including a grandfather in Taiwan, a legislator who helped overturn archaic laws there that prohibited women from owning inherited property.
But for women IT professionals, it's not always an upbeat story.
There's troubling evidence that some high-tech firms are pushing highly educated female workers to the brink of burn-out in a business atmosphere that expects round-the-clock hours, is brutally dismissive of family life and marginalizes them in a sea of highly educated men.
"In high-tech companies, 'flexibility' often means staying until midnight coupled with the expectation of increased productivity and constant availability," concluded a recent report entitled "Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions of Mid-Level Women in Technology."
The extensive report, which took a year to complete, was done by researchers from Stanford University and the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, supported by HP and others. The researchers surveyed 1,795 mid-level technical professionals in seven high-tech firms in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, not disclosing the names of the firms which allowed them access.
Survey participants were both mid-level men and women about a decade into their careers and making salaries topping $125,000. But the study found the go-go life of the Silicon Valley/Bay Area was hitting women harder than men for a number of reasons.
One was simply that the mid-level technical men who participated in the study were far more likely to have a spouse or partner who didn't work full-time and accepted the main responsibility for the household, including children. In contrast, the technical women usually were married or partnered with professionals like themselves - but the women were the household managers.
"They call it the second shift," said Jerri Barrett, director of marketing at Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, who notes these women might be doing their business job at home into the night but their lack of visibility at the office made it look like they aren't involved.
The researchers found a third of the women interviewed had decided to delay having children in order to achieve their career goals, while 18% of men indicated the same. And for the sake of their jobs, 9% of the surveyed women decided to forego children completely, compared with 3.5% of men.
Men and women alike largely agreed the Silicon Valley/Bay Area high-tech work experience was decidedly anti-family. And for women, this also meant a sense their careers were stalling. In fact, women were stereotyped as "family focused" and "unwilling to travel, and are more likely than men to be passed over for promotions," concluded the report.
"The high-tech work pace is so extreme that academic researchers refer to it as a work-family 'conflict' rather than work-family balance," the report noted. "Work-family conflict hits women at the mid-level especially hard. When the demands of family life are irreconcilable with work responsibilities, women are often forced to choose between work and family life in this 'all or nothing' proposition. … When it comes to providing opportunities for technical women, high-tech firms lag sharply behind those in other sectors."
The Stanford/Anita Borg Institute report offered few answers besides "flextime" and "mentoring" to keep women from deserting Silicon Valley high-tech jobs; the report notes other research indicates women are jumping ship at rates far higher than men.
But women who have managed to conduct tech-oriented careers across industry, academia and venture-capital firms tend to be enthusiastic advocates for it because their chosen fields are often exciting, sometimes lucrative and encourage innovation.