We need a root cause analysis of the gender in IT problem

Posted by gminks in women in tech | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The statistics speak for themselves.

  • 24% of professional IT jobs are held by women, even though 57% of professional jobs are held by women
  • In 2008, 56% of all AP test-takers were female, 51% who took the calculus AP test were female, but only 19% of the Computer Science test takers were female.
  • In 2008, 57% of people graduating with a Bachelor’s degree were women, but women only made up 18% of the Computer and Info Science degrees and only twelve percent of the Computer Science degrees.
  • In 2008, 28% of the Computer Scientists were women. 3% of that number were African American, 3% were Asian, 1% were Hispanic. They didn’t even bother to count the American Indian women who are computer scientists.

These statistics are striking. They are important, because as we move to a world where all of our information is up in the cloud, wouldn’t it be nice to know that the people creating and managing either the public or a private cloud come from diverse backgrounds?

So why aren’t more women in technical positions in the workplace? Why aren’t more women earning technical degrees? Why haven’t things changed since I started my education career ten years ago?

My Experience

  • College
    I started college as a very poor single mother of two young children. I started at community college in a displaced homemaker program. The program counselor tried to get me to join the Business Adminstration program so I could get a job as an admin. I took one look at the Electronic Engineering Technology program and said sign me up for THAT! The program had a library of required texts that you could check out each semester instead of buying books, but they never had my books – I was the first woman to go choose the EET major.
    During one class the professor said, “Most women who take this program do a great job as technicians because they have such tiny delicate hands”. This comment upset me. First of all I have the exact opposite¬† of tiny delicate hands. Secondly, he had just talked about how much money you could make if got a job designing things. I was at the top of my class. Why would he encourage me (the only woman sitting in the class) to become a technician when I had the the training to do something much further up the value chain?
    So does discouragement to be equal players in the IT world start at school? How many women start technical degree programs, but never finish?
  • First Job
    My first professional job was at EMC as a technical instructor. One of the classes I delivered was about how to connect UNIX hosts to a storage array. If you are proficient with UNIX you probably remember how hard it is to learn how to do things on the command line when you are first learning. But once you figure out what the error messages are trying to tell you it gets easier.
    That’s how I taught the class. I’d establish a rapport to figure out how the person learned, and I was very hands on giving one-on-one feedback during the lab. I’d look at the error message the student was getting, and then I’d help them learn to decipher it. But this meant I had to lean in and look at the screen to see the error. If I did this while I was standing up – and there is no delicate way to say this – my boobs would be in their face. So I tried just getting on my knees next to them to see the screen, and don’t you know I got disgusting comments about that (being on my knees).
    So, how do you handle that? This was my first job out of college, and I didn’t want to be anything but technical. Were the comments my fault because I established such a good rapport with my students? Could I have dressed differently (actually tried this, no matter what I wore I still had problems)? I can tell you, 8 years later, I can still remember the comments and they still make me uncomfortable.
  • At Conferences
    I went to Linux World when I worked for a government agency. I went to attend some Linux security classes and to look for cluster software for an upcoming project. As long as I was in the technical classes – with the geeks – everything was fine. But when my colleague (a woman) and I visited the booths, we were ignored. We would wait for a salesperson to free up, and in most cases he would look for another man to talk to. This happened several times, so we tried flashing our badges because the name of our agency was there on the badge.
    Why were we being ignored? Why was there such a difference in how we were treated? How do you learn to handle that, especially if we were representatives of an agency or a company?
  • Flat out discrimination
    I have faced flat-out sexist discrimination. It took me months to realize what was going on, but when I did I started planning my escape.

I’m writing this post because I am still reeling from the reactions I had to writing about what happened during the gender discussion at podcamp. I actually came away from Podcamp feeling empowered, feeling like it was a good thing that so many diverse views were shared on the topic.

However, the comments on my blog and others’ blog posts about the event killed that positive feeling. People posted straw man arguments in response to my words, and others used all sorts of other logical fallacies to attack my premise that there are still obstacles that prevent women from achieving their full potential.

But the facts speak for themselves. My experiences were real and are valid.

I am angry that my point of view has been dismissed, but I am even angrier at myself because I put down the heavy burden of acting as a mentor. I have been lucky enough to have powerful mentors, men and women, who haven’t been afraid to listen to me and help me overcome obstacles thrown in front of me and obstacles I helped to create for myself. I’m lucky enough to work with lots of geeks that are so focused on technology they don’t care about anything else but the code.¬† I have a responsibility to my peers, and those who are starting out in a career in IT, to continue to speak up.

As a technical person, I know that you have to look at all the symptoms before you can get to the root cause of any problem. You can try to apply little patches to make the warning errors go away for a while, but as long as the root problem exists you will always have trouble. I believe one reason so few women stay in IT is because of social misunderstandings. If you know me at all, you know this is a passion of mine: troubleshooting the social network so that everyone is allowed to participate.

What do I plan to do? I think one thing I’m going to do is blog about this issue from the standpoint of HPT (or Human Performance Technology). Here’s a definition of HPT:

Human performance technology is the study and ethical practice of improving productivity in organizations by designing and developing effective interventions that are results-oriented, comprehensive, and systematic. – James A Pershing

More detail in another post, but can you imagine the impact on IT if organizations were able to increase the amount of women engineers? Can you imagine the impact if we were able to increase the amount of women who studied engineering in college?

We can’t get there without analyzing the problem. We can’t analyze the problem without talking about it. And I intend to keep doing that.

6 Responses to We need a root cause analysis of the gender in IT problem

  1. Allyson says:

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your series. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Judy says:

    STEM education must become a priority for 21st century work force. Women are life long learners, but we need them to have positive experiences early in their learning.

  3. Joy says:

    Another thing to consider is the influx of workers from other countries, India for example, who don’t respect women in the home let alone the workplace.

  4. Mike Bogle says:

    I wish I could say that my observations have been significantly different to what you’re describing, but unfortunately they haven’t been. There is still very much a boy’s club mentality about IT, and unfortunately the women who maintain a presence in the field seem to have to work significantly harder to do it and develop some thick skins – arguably thicker than the guys.

    One thing I can quite happily say though, without a doubt I’ve learned an extraordinary amount from the women I’ve worked with in IT, more than what I’ve learned from the guys I’d say. Developing a holistic view of service delivery and project planning; how to resolve critical system failures while minimising impact on users; a solid approach to technical documentation; how to plan and systematically conduct testing and troubleshooting; and especially how to effectively manage an unwieldy, anarchic group of (stubborn) people and get things done.

    It’s a crime that merit and ability isn’t always what is seen first, let alone acknowledged and rewarded.

    I’m grateful to all the women in IT who have toughed it out and put up with all the chauvinism, because the industry is better off because of their/your efforts.

  5. Charles says:

    Thanks for sharing the comments on breaking the technology gender barriers. I have not looked at gender-career stats, but there are plenty of trends in science and technology fields that fall into various patterns. My daughter (entering college) is interested in Veterinary medicine. I think there are more female vets than men. Why the predominance of men in IT? Not sure.

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