Where are all the women?
[By Matthew French] I was brought up to believe that men and women are created equal. Then I hit puberty and the issue became more complicated. Later, at university, I was exposed to the feminist movement which, to be honest, left me more confused than ever. Though it created a heightened awareness of the issue of gender equality, it became difficult to separate dogma and ideology from real problems.
After university I entered the real world and discovered that the issue of gender equality was even more convoluted than I had thought. The debate became grey. Actually, a lot of the time the debate didn’t even exist. In the office, men and women would have exchanges laced with sexist undertones. A new twist was that the women gave as much as they took — men cannot multitask, men are ego-centric sex maniacs, men couldn’t arrange a drinking contest in a brewery and need a good woman to help them out.
Though a part of me saw these exchanges as trivialising the issue and demeaning to the work of feminists over the ages, another part was telling me to stop being such a prude. Sexism isn’t such a big issue any more. Or is it?
I think it is fair to say that women have far greater opportunities today than they had 30 years ago. Women have access to almost all the same jobs as men do. Exclusive men’s clubs have all but disappeared and society has accepted that mothers can have full time jobs, too.
In the past decade, girls in the UK dominated the GCSE math results — a statistic that should be remembered by all the misogynists who like to pontificate about how women cannot think logically.
But with all these changes, women are still outnumbered by men in IT. Those women who do work in IT rarely work on the technical side doing jobs like programming or system administration. Rather, they go for analysis, testing or management roles. For human resource departments tasked with promoting gender equity, this imbalance can be quite a headache. The question is: why does the imbalance exist?
To answer this question, we first have decide whether men and women really are that different. Now if we consider that most sports still have separate men’s and women’s events, then gender is obviously seen as a significant indicator of physical prowess.
Arguing that men and women think differently is considerably more difficult. However, when one considers that in 2003 only 15% of arsonists in the US were women, there clearly is a statistically significant difference in the way men and women go about solving problems. But how deep does this difference go?
One popular theory circulated by both men and women is that biology, influenced by evolution, means that men and women have different perspectives on the world. As the hunters and protectors, men tend to be more aggressive and analytical, while mothers fill the role of care-givers and are better equipped to deal with dozens of screaming children and the day-to-day issues of managing the tribe.
The theory is compelling because it excuses the differences in the way men and women behave, and goes some way to explaining why fewer women work in IT. Using this logic, we can conclude that first-level tech support and project management should mostly employ women, while designing and building complex software is better left to the men.
If that last sentence didn’t disturb you, then it might be time for some sensitivity training.
The thing is that the theory works at the macro level. This is the hazy world of generalisations and statistics. What this means is that while the theory says that statistically more men than women are suited to working in IT, at no point does it prove a woman cannot work in the field. Unfortunately the distinction is often lost, which is why this theory and the many others like it can be dangerous.
In my last year at university I was approached by a young woman who wanted to know if her gender was going to be a problem if she studied engineering. I didn’t understand why anyone should think that this could be an issue, but the unfortunate reality was that in a class of 80 graduates we only had four women.
Feeling suitably unqualified to comment, I told her where to find the women from my class and suggested she speak to them.
This encounter left a lasting impression that perception of the industry probably plays a much bigger role in the gender imbalance than any evil men’s club hatching cunning and devious plans to keep women out of IT.
It is easy enough to appreciate why women wouldn’t want to work in the lair of the alpha geek. Many men are just as uncomfortable in this territory. It can seem even more frightening if one believes the stereotype of an IT person as someone with poor personal hygiene and the mannerisms of a socially inept 16-year-old. While this doesn’t describe most IT folk I know, the problem is about perception, and stereotypes matter.
Of course it is also possible that women feel that they have better things to do with their lives than spend their time trying to beat sense into an obstinate machine. I can think of some women who would argue, with tongue firmly in cheek, that men work in IT because we aren’t smart enough to realise this.
Unfortunately, at this point the issue of gender equality in IT becomes considerably murkier. Do quotas matter if women don’t want to work in the industry? Should the industry be working on its image to make it more appealing to women? If we believe in free choice, should we be coercing women into IT at all? Is this an issue that we should be concerned with?
If perception really is the problem, then the HR department should be speaking to school leavers about why women can work in IT, while identifying and addressing the issues that turn women away from the computer industry. In the meantime there is no sense in forcing IT departments to employ more women as long as women don’t want to work in the industry.
If you are a woman working in IT, please leave your insights in the comments section below. Does being a woman make it harder to work in IT? Is gender equality in IT a problem? What do you think could be done to improve the gender ratio?
- French is an independent consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the IT industry