Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
Commentary
2/20/2014
10:06 AM
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Women, IT & The Outrage Machine

Business is booming for pundits who get their clicks bemoaning the existential danger of gender imbalances in high tech. But guess what? It's irrational BS.

Vivek Wadwha, a fellow at Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, has made something of a cottage industry ginning up outrage over shoddy treatment of women in IT in general and in Silicon Valley in particular.

At first glance, the stats do seem alarming. Women are proportionally underrepresented in STEM programs. Girls aren't interested in computers. The Washington Post breathlessly cites a report from the Center for Talent Innovation that shows women working in these fields in the US are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year.

Quick, call the government regulators.

Or just calm down, because you know what they say about statistics: Torture them enough, and they'll tell you anything you want to hear.

More on the numbers in a moment. What's really stunning are the, shall we say, gratuitous mental leaps. Take this quote from Wadwha's Wall Street Journal blog from January: "Because there are few women in engineering, girls don't perceive computing to be a friendly profession, so fewer are entering the field."

How did Wadwha come up with that? Did he conduct a study? Did he actually ask a girl? Because the Girl Scouts did. In fact, the organization surveyed 852 US girls ages 14-17. The group was diversified with respect to geographical region, urbanicity, and racial/ethnic breakdown. Of those interested in STEM, just about 30% overall said issues often noted by the experts are a reason to avoid these careers. Even more interesting is that, if you look at the top career goals for girls interested in STEM, they don't align very well with how IT as a profession is promoted. After all, how often do you hear that IT helps people or makes the world a better place to live?

Maybe the problem isn't promoting IT as a place for women, but promoting it as a place where everyone can directly or indirectly have a positive impact on the world. But, hey, doing that would be difficult. It's easier to wring our hands.

Frankly, I'm tired of men purporting to understand the reasons women choose one field over another. And I'm just as exhausted by the "Oh, nos! We don't have enough women in high tech!" What's the appropriate ratio? Does it have to be 50%, or will 30% suffice? Maybe we should shoot for 80%? Why isn't Wadwha -- or anyone else I've read -- lamenting the low number of men in nursing or teaching or any other field that suffers from a gender imbalance? Or how women are underrepresented in construction, auto mechanics, or trash collection?

My theory: IT and engineering pay well. Practitioners and those who cater to them possess an alarming level of political correctness paired with a lot of disposable income. The troops in the hand-wringer brigade know on which side their organic, fair-trade $4 toast is buttered.

Maybe it's time to face the reality that many women, for a variety of reasons, aren't interested in high tech. Maybe it's the long hours, or the constant travel, or the fact that they'd rather go into life sciences, or that you have to live in the Valley or some other high-tech center to get ahead. I've met many excellent women in the IT trenches in the South and Midwest, and I'm guessing not a one of them wants to move to Santa Clara just to be counted among the top women in high tech.

In a WSJ blog post telling us how to fix the problem, Wadwha says all this is the fault of employers, not women. He quotes "diversity experts" such as Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, who says, "For example, job descriptions that are overloaded with long lists of required skills (which may or may not be needed on day one, and could be learned on the job) may cause women to not apply if they don't have each and every skill; men on the other hand will tend to apply if they have only a subset of the skills."

Holy logic leap, Batman. If men apply without having all the requirements, but women don't, why is that the fault of the HR wonk writing the listing? Isn't it really about how women evaluate a help-wanted ad? Isn't it their fault they don't choose to apply?

Then there are these pearls of advice: Interview at least one woman and one member of a minority for every open position. And don't forget to haul in some women to conduct the interview. Why? "A female candidate will recognize that the business values diversity if the interviewers are men and women, and she is more likely to join the company if offered a job," says Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute.

What if no women or minorities apply? Are we supposed to drag some in off the street? What if the women who are in a position to intelligently add to the interview process are, you know, working? Shall we just grab someone with breasts at random?

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Look, my biggest fear when entering this field is that I would end up the token woman. Biggest fear. I want to be respected because I'm that good, not because I happened to be born female. I spent the first eight years of my career in development surrounded by men, and by hiring teams full of men. I didn't give a rat's ass about diversity or how many women I'd work with. I cared about whether the job was interesting, paid well, and was going to further my career.

You want to attract smart, capable women? Make sure hiring decisions are based on merit, skill, and the ability to learn and work as part of a team. Treat all your people well. Oh, and don't be so quick to mock interview questions that may seem off the wall. I used to help interview developers. I asked what kind of music they like. You know why? Because I've never met a developer who listened to country music who was worth hiring. Arbitrary? Maybe. But we once took a chance on a country fan and lived to regret it. (I'll talk more on the topic of interviews in my next column.)

If young women aren't majoring in computer science, it's because they don't want to. Maybe they like medicine better. You want numbers? Here are some true facts courtesy of the National Science Foundation: "Women constituted the majority of graduate students in psychology (76%), medical/other life sciences (76%), biological sciences (57%), and social sciences (54%), and were close to half of graduate students in agricultural sciences (49%) and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (46%)." Maybe some women want to major in history, business, or Mandarin and learn to code on their own.

So before we spend lots of effort trying to fix the problem of gender imbalance in high tech, let's think about whether it matters, or whether the real answer has nothing to do with women and equality and everything to do with some distorted notion of social justice that is highly selective and apparently applies to only a subset of high-paying, high-profile careers.

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The author, a senior IT manager at a Silicon Valley tech vendor, shares her experiences under the pseudonym Tammie Colivariti. She has spent decades in high tech, from development to security and infrastructure, and has never hesitated to tell it like it is, even when "it" is ... View Full Bio

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Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
2/22/2014 | 11:30:00 AM
The fact that we are still having this debate is the real problem
As a woman who has worked in the IT space, mostly the IT security space and more recently the cloud space, I can sympathize with both sides of this argument.  Firstly, I didn't major in computer science or engineering, I came from marketing and technology (before eMarketing existed, it was the only way to merge the 2 realms).  I stayed on the creative side of the IT industry through marketing, but as many IT folks forget, when it comes down to it, it's often the marketing folks, especially product managers, who have the technical knowledge.  After all, when the sales and pre-sales folks don't keep up with certifications, it's us who complete them to keep vendors happy.  To this date I have so many certifications that I will never use beyond a theoretical purpose. I've always been one of a handful of women in my division, and rarely has there been another woman on my team.  Why is this?  It's intimidating.  You need a special kind of backbone, especially in marketing, to not feel like the token oddity, since well, it's a male dominated field.

But does that mean it should be?  The problem is that the learning curve, especially when you look at job descriptions as the author pointed out, is that we feel like if we don't have every single skill, we will be passed up for another male.  I hate to say it, but I can count on more than one hand where I have been more than qualified for a position, but was overlooked for a male because they were worried a woman would skew the team dynamic.  

On the opposite hand, it's not just an IT thing.  Case in point, my significant other is a nurse, which like the IT industry, is skewed towards the other gender.  He is the token novelty despite that he is exceptional at his role.  Exact same situation. 

So how do we fix this strange situation?  Honestly, if you ask me, there needs to be more mentoring for women in IT.  We talk about it, but many women feel that if they enter the field they will be left to fend for themselves.  It's worse when you add in the sexual innuendos, inappropriate behaviour from bosses and colleagues, and the general feeling of being overlooked because you feel like you cannot compete with your peers due to negative biases that have no foundation in reality.

It's tough. There is no fix for this, because its a problem that shouldn't exist.  If you look at the industry historically, especially during WWII, women were respected in these roles.  Something happened to change that, and personally, I think that we need to look at why that shift caused so much disruption in the IT industry.

 
eunheekim
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eunheekim,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/21/2014 | 5:22:49 PM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
First of all, the "whiners" remark was in response to Lorna Garey, who remarked that "IT collectively needs to do stop whining."

Second of all, are we reading the same article? Colivarti is putting the onus on women, not hirers or decision-makers, for the lack of female representation in the IT industry. The entire article is based on fiction, and sidesteps a real and prominent issue: IT is hostile towards women. This has been an ongoing problem that both men and women have spoken up about in recent years. You can't have a discussion about gender quotas and women just "not being interested in tech" without recognizing that sexual harassment is pervasive.

Although I would advise actually reading the articles, here are some relevant excerpts:

"Meritocracy creates a hierarchy amongst the people within it. Some of those at the top or striving to at least be above other people have been guilty of using their power for bullying, harassment, and sexist/racist/*ist language that they use against others directly and indirectly. This creates an atmosphere where people who would otherwise be deemed meritorious within this system choose not to participate because of a hostile, unrewarding environment."

"The idea of a meritocracy presumes that everyone starts off and continues through with the same level of access to opportunity, time, and money, which is unfortunately not the case. It's a romanticized ideal - a belief in which at best ignores and at worst outright dismisses the experiences of everyone outside the group with the most access to these things."

And, yes. "Men in Nursing: Barriers to Recruitment" and "Delusions of Gender" are examples of work that discuss this issue.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
2/21/2014 | 4:39:08 PM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
Again, I think you're missing the point. The author isn't calling women who legitimately complain about harassment whiners. She's calling people who insist on arbitrary quotas because they don't like the gender percentages whiners. If there's true hostility and sexism, companies need to root it out and make sure it doesn't happen again. No one's arguing against that.

The concept of "meritocracy" is inherently flawed? Granted, I haven't read Dryden's or House's work--maybe you should summarize the conclusions here for everyone.

As for your statement that men in the nursing field are often "forced into managerial positions they don't want to be in," come on. You're losing credibility there. Amid a nursing shortage, you're telling us that hospitals are kicking male nurses upstairs against their will? 
CindyC527
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CindyC527,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/21/2014 | 4:26:04 PM
Meritocracy
As a female software engineer who has worked in the field for 20 years, I agree with the statement "You want to attract smart, capable women? Make sure hiring decisions are based on merit, skill, and the ability to learn and work as part of a team."

Nothing bothers me more than when people assume I have my job only because I'm there to fill some gender diversity quota.

I've enjoyed working in IT with many wonderful men.  I've noticed that any gender discrimination problems I face...such as coworkers making comments like "I'm surprised you're so logical...most women I know are emotional"....only come from weak, insecure men.  The highly competent, capable, and secure male engineers I've worked with never say stuff like that...they're just happy to have the help of another capable engineer, regardless of his or her gender. 

 

 
eunheekim
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eunheekim,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/21/2014 | 2:56:58 PM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
Except that women in IT who complain to superiors about sexual harassment in the workplace are often fired or relocated to another department -- the transgressor is rarely, if ever, punished. And it's not just in the enterprise sphere; the amount of hostility and sexism towards women at tech conferences is astronomical.

These events don't happen in a bubble. They create a dialogue and impact women currently in the IT industry, as well as girls considering a future career in technology.

Pointing out racism and sexism in IT isn't "whining," and the concept of "meritocracy" is inherently flawed. Ashe Dryden, and recently, Allison House, have both written excellent articles covering these topics.

"Are you as worked up about the lack of men in nursing? Or a lack of women at construction sites?"

Yes, I am. Men are often discriminated against in care-related fields and often forced into managerial positions they don't want to be in, just as women who want to work manual labor are often patronized. Patriarchy benefits neither gender.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
2/21/2014 | 1:23:00 PM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
You're missing the point. Sexual haraasment is illegal, period. So is discrimination. That's why we have lawyers. Businesses that make no effort at diverifying their workforces are making a business decision. Maybe it'll come back to bite them, maybe it won't.

The point of this column is that people interested in diversity in IT definitely ARE having their say. Ad nauseum. But at some point, she's saying that IT collectively needs to do stop whining and start marketing itself as a career that meshes with what the best and brightest -- male and female -- want. Read: work/life balance, making a difference in the world, challenges and learning. And, those in a hiring position need to stop with artificial quotas and hire the best person for the job, period.

Are you as worked up about the lack of men in nursing? Or a lack of women at construction sites?
eunheekim
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eunheekim,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/21/2014 | 1:10:47 PM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
Bravo, Colivariti, for ignoring article after article describing the sexual harassment women in tech face from both peers and higher ups, and encouraging business leaders to make no effort in attracting minorities to their companies. Because, of course, the perspectives of women and people of color offer no value to a business, or to the IT industry, and it's much more logical for the community to continue remain inundated with nothing but white males.

If you don't give a "rat's ass" about diversity, why bother writing this article? If it's something you don't care about, why not keep your opinions to yourself and let those of us who DO care about diversity have our say?
Tammie Colivariti
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Tammie Colivariti,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/21/2014 | 10:08:54 AM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
I don't think she's naive at all. When I decided that computer science was my field it was because of the challenges and the (perhaps naive belief back then) that I could, in fact, one day change the world with technology.

I looked up information about the field using BLS - but I was looking at salary trends and growth rates, not male:female ratios.

I think the biggest issue with "IT" and younger women really is perception and the belief that IT means coding or configuring systems. The reality is there are such a wide variety of career paths in IT/high tech that are rarely mentioned that might appeal to many more women if they were aware of them.

IT needs to better position itself. It's a branding problem at this point.
Tammie Colivariti
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Tammie Colivariti,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/21/2014 | 10:02:36 AM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
Note we hired the developer irrespective of his musical tastes. He had the appropriate credentials and experience, after all, which is far more important - despite the fact that it turned out poorly (as predicted).

As Lorna noted, we all discriminate based on biases and ancedotal experience that shapes our perceptions. Vivek Wadwha cites Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, who further cites research that "shows that people tend to hire those who are similar to them." 

I've had to take personality tests before being hired to make sure I, you know, fit in with the rest of the organization and its culture.

I'm not likely to be successful or happy joining an organizations that has radically different value systems, likes to listen to music or drink beer or eat foods or support causes I don't agree with or like, so that discrimination isn't just a one-sided street, either.


  
Non profit techie
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Non profit techie,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/20/2014 | 6:26:12 PM
Re: NSF stats tell the story
I have just finished reading "Gender Codes". It was about the history of women in IT.  It was full of stats. In its inception, IT was an offshoot of clerical work and it was majority women.  Over time, as IT gained status and salary, it became male dominated. Discrimination was more prevalent in early years, but now it is mostly marketing and perception. Some people care about being the only "fill-in-the-blank" and some don't. Also as with most professions, if it is not conducive to your home life, it might not look appealing (man or woman). 

Below are the major points that determine if anyone will succeed in a field 
  • Knowledge of the field
  • Interest
  • Education / Training
  • Hiring
  • Advancement

The concern was that other STEM fields are seeing more female participation, but IT lags behind. *Sounds alarm* People are also concerned that we (USA) are not being as competitive as we could be due to the dearth of women. IT skillsets now encompass things that some perceive women to be "naturally good at". I believe it is an interesing situation, but not a "problem". It is a problem when people are actively discriminating.  

For me personally, the people I have encountered have been mostly supportive. People who weren't supportive, were not nice to anybody.
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