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Turning Unfair Perceptions Upside Down

Ask Cindy Riemenschneider why identity is important for information technology professionals, and she might turn the question around.

"What do you think a doctor's professional identity is?" she asks, and as you struggle for an answer, you might give a physical description that leads you to what a medical doctor does.

Such professional identity – physical description and all – is at the heart of how we assign importance to professionals, said Riemenschneider, an associate professor of Information Systems at the Hankamer School of Business. And if you are likely to think of doctors as white-coated experts dishing out advice, please give similar consideration to the man or woman responsible for the stories you are reading in this very publication. They are the people who inspired and provided the technology that allowed it to happen.

As Riemenschneider puts it: "As a society, we have a concept of what the professional identity is for the medical profession, or for an attorney. But there is not much done for information technology (IT)." And it is this kind of vision that allows people to see themselves working in the IT industry, which is necessary to attract workers of the future.

An outdated and inaccurate perception of an IT expert is someone who makes eye contact only with a computer screen while speaking an unknown dialect of English, and wearing thick glasses and the latest in pocket protector fashion. That old picture sticks in our heads.

But even if that were an accurate stereotype at one time, the IT field has changed dramatically, Riemenschneider noted. The field has broadened because computers are everywhere, beginning with their use in professional offices and their expansion into homes. And there is no sense in saddling the information tech with limited, unfair stereotypes.

"Understanding what the professional identity is can help us educate the general public," Riemenschneider said.

Such understanding also affects who goes into a profession and why, what kind of training they receive, and eventually, what organizations of all types are able to do with technology – or, conversely, how an inability to find competent employees stifles an organization's productivity and growth.

Riemenschneider researched and co-wrote "IT Professional Identity: Needs, Perceptions, and Belonging," published in May 2010 in the European Journal of Information Systems (EJIS) to help bring perception closer to the reality. Lead author of the paper is Nita Brooks of the Department of Computer Information Systems at Middle Tennessee State University, Riemenschneider's former student at the University of Arkansas. Other coauthors are Bill Hardgrave of Auburn University and Anne O'Leary-Kelly of the University of Arkansas.

Another paper published in the EJIS examines gender perspectives in the information systems field: "Perspectives on Challenges Facing Women in IS: The Cognitive Gender Gap."

In working on research for this paper, Riemenschneider and her colleagues hoped to gain insight into why many women leave the male-dominated information systems (IS) field. "There have been women in information systems, but the number is definitely declining. We were trying to understand why. This paper used a qualitative approach with men and women, asking them the same questions. We were hoping to shed light on why not everyone sees the issue the same way."

Researchers asked gender-based questions in six focus groups – one made up of men only and one of women-only composition – at three organizations. The researchers conducting the men-only sessions were male, and those conducting the women-only sessions were female.

The resulting paper, coauthored by Margaret F. Reid and Myria W. Allen of the University of Arkansas and Deborah J. Armstrong of Florida State University, shows a gap between male-female perceptions of gender challenges. The researchers believe that understanding the challenges that women in the profession face can promote insight into why there are not more women in the field, and could lead to reversing the trend.

Gender challenges in the IS field range from work and family issues to training to differences in perceiving the nuances of communication, the paper reveals. It points out that "™women's access to senior management positions, where they might be able to articulate and ultimately address the challenges women face in IS, is still confined to a small cadre of women, thus limiting their ability and perceived legitimacy to make demands for lasting change."

The research is important in light of the shortage in this country of information technology workers. Riemenschneider, whose PhD is in Information Systems, earlier wrote a guest editorial in the EJIS calling for such research, noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 25.2 percent growth in IT jobs by 2016, against a backdrop of 10.4 percent for all jobs.

"You look at where are the holes in our knowledge with regard to where are the holes in our field, and where can we build on our knowledge," Riemenschneider said. "Over time, these questions have arisen out of my primary research areas."

Issues affecting the IT workforce is an area she will continue to study, encouraged by the atmosphere at Baylor. IT is the first department in the Hankamer School of Business to build a PhD program for Management of Information Systems. A call to help develop the program drew Riemenschneider to Baylor.

One of her latest projects is to examine data collected from state government workers, including CIOs, IT managers and IT workers. She is studying how much knowledge departments can absorb from a variety of environments.

"Over time as a researcher, you find different projects, and some are more fun than others," she noted. "You end up finding areas you are passionate about, and that leads you to work on those projects. The IT workforce is one area where I really developed a passion about trying to answer these questions – ‘Why aren't there more women in this field and how can we attract more women to it? What can we do to change negative perceptions?' These are some of the driving questions that led me down this particular path. If you like logical processes and have creativity, this is an excellent field to go into."

Cindy Riemenschneider
Baylor University