Friday, 18 May 2007

In Need Of A New Welcome Mat: Women & Technology

I got into a blog conversation with a fellow named Graham on the site a bag full of monkeys a while back on the question of why more women aren't in technology. He wanted to focus on girls getting involved early, and I suggested he was being a bit naive about the barriers that women face along the way.

It’s interesting because speaking to a couple women who slugged it out and are still in tech, both of them talked about the overwhelming feeling at their first number of jobs that maybe they just didn’t fit in. They felt like complete outsiders and had to develop very thick and lonely skins in order to remain in the industry.

Well, their anecdotes are now confirmed by a new study:

“For years, word has circulated of a significant gender gap in the technology workplace, where women are greatly outnumbered by men.

The blame is typically placed on low interest on the part of women to pursue computers and engineering, but the actual experience of women working in technology is rarely addressed. A report released May 14 stands to shift this perception by drawing attention to the fact that tech workplaces may not be the most favorable environments for women to work in.”

Sounds like time for a new welcome strategy boys....


vanessa said...

You have to have a Ph.D. in dealing with bullies to survive in hard-core tech as a woman. Fortunately, I already had one before I started so it was only mildly unpleasant. It really shouldn't be that hard, though. Too many good women computer scientists and engineers I went to school with gave up long ago because they couldn't stand the bulls**t.

graham said...

Hi Leigh,

Yeah, it's me from bagfullofmonkeys. I replied again over their, but I thought I'd make my case here now you and I are talking about this.

Has it ever occurred to the women complaining of being 'intimidated' in a tech environment that they may simply be being treated by the men the way male techies treat each other all the time?, but are simply less used to it because women don't communicate the same way with other women?

Men put each other down and question each other's competence in extremely direct and harsh ways, constantly. It's actually part of the male bonding process, it's how they develop respect for one another. Men actually expect their closest male friends to say things 'hey lardass, it's time you got yourself to the gym' or 'that piece of code you wrote was a f**king disaster you moron, you need to read this book before you work on that kind of system again'.

If it happened to you, this sounds odd, but you should be greatful. Why? because it means the guy who did it was trying to treat you like an equal, rather than an emotionally fragile china doll. It means he was talking to you as he would another man. In my experience, most men (with the exception of a minority of assholes who get an ego trip from intimidating women) usually tone it down several notches before they will be harsh or critical towards a woman as compared to a man. Maybe this is wrong too, but there's no cruel intent behind it.

Maybe I'm wrong here, and the kind of things that happened to you were something more, and nastier, than men talking to you as if you were a man and you finding it harsh and unpleasant. If so, please explain it.

Leigh said...

Actually G, I happen to be in a family with three of the most sarcastic, black witted tongued men you will ever meet. I am not even close to a China doll.

You seem to want specific examples which you and I both know will simply become a back and forth as to whether or not you think my examples are relevant or not. So hope you don't mind I won't participate because I don't think my individual experiences are the point. The collective experience is what we are talking about here and the point I was trying to make was that your desire to pin point "child's play" as the root of the problem is not accurate and is not substantiated in research.

vanessa said...

I'm not interested in throwing more fuel on this particular fire, but let me just add the following: I worked for the Canadian Department of Defense, on a military base, for several years. You have to figure those guys are well versed in the whole "male bonding" thing. Yet those people were nothing but civilized and professional in their dealings with everyone around them, including women engineers and computer scientists. It was, in fact, a very friendly and professional work environment.

So... I can't really endorse the "male bonding" excuse, for that reason. (Unless you intend to claim that none of those men actually respected me which is why they treated me with respect.)

Besides which, why should a woman have to endure male bonding rituals in order to do her job as a technologist? Why should a woman be "grateful" for being treated like a man?

Technology is not a boys club that women are to be grudgingly admitted to if they pass some puerile inititation rituals set by men. Men in technical fields have the same obligations to behave professionally towards their co-workers as men in every other profession do. If a "grunt" can do it, surely a "geek" can, too.

And as Leigh says, it's not one woman's, or even ten women's individual and particular experiences that matter. (Nor one man's opinions on them.) It's the research showing that women find technical fields and work environments unwelcoming—and the consequences of that to the number of women entering those fields—that matters. The ACM and IEEE publish reams of this stuff all the time. Search their digital libraries for more info.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that I don't understand what the negative experiences are. You're arguing that women find these environments unwelcoming without telling me why, or what it is that men are doing which you feel is unprofessional and unfair.

As I said before, I don't personally know of any man working in technology who doesn't want female colleagues. We simply don'get many applicants. I thought it was because not as many women enjoyed the subject matter.
But this is apparently not the case. I'm asking you to educate me as to why.

Are you asking that men treat you differently to the way they treat their male colleagues ? if so, how ? Or is it that you think the men have treated you less favourably than their male colleagues, if so, how?

A problem that isn't described clearly can't be fixed.

Leigh said...

Luckily there are people better at figuring this stuff out than us who are working on figuring out just that. Many organizations and studies (like the one mentioned in the post) are starting to look at root causes and I assume will start to come out with recommendations.

If I come across more studies and articles that make specific suggestions, I will certainly post them.

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