Last night I took part in a panel that was organised by Rachel Slattery under the title of “IT’s a mad men’s world.”. There were a whole lot of really fascinating women there, both in the audience and the panel, but also some stray men, which was good to see. With me on the panel were Sue Klose, Corporate Development Director of News Digital Media; Juliet Potter, Founder & Director of www.autochic.com.au; and Tim Batten, Head of eChannels & Payments at Westpac. The panel was moderated by Sandra Davey, Director of kcollective.
The discussion was really awesome and the stories that each of us could tell of situations where we had to stand up for ourselves just for being a woman were shocking. But what really got me was the universal message that we all had: don’t let the morons get you down and let go of your goals. Fight the fights that are worth it. It’s OK if not everybody loves you – you have to ask yourself: do you want to be liked or respected?
I actually did a little research before the event and wasn’t able to share half of the things I learnt. So I thought I’d put some more in this blog post.
I came across this xkcd cartoon just yesterday and thought: wow, this really is the essence of the problem why we have so few women in IT.
You may be thinking that this cartoon represents a problem with male (or indeed societal) prejudices against women. I actually think the problem is deeper.
Imagine you’re a girl and have to decide on a career. You’re pretty good at many things and could be going into a technical career. But you have little experience since you’ve had little exposure and no mentors in the field before. Would you take the chance to expose yourself to looking really dumb, possibly even failing? Not just are you taking the hard road for yourself if you do. But there’s the larger impact on the perception of women. By looking dumb or failing, you will shed a bad light on all women and thus confirm the prejudice, making it even harder for other women to go into the field. Now do you start to understand why there are so few and each year even less women in technical jobs?
You think I’m taking this too far? Don’t. Women are being taught from very early on to not just think about themselves, but to be cooperative and always consider their environment. While such thoughts might not be consciously taken, they are there and play a role.
What do I really want to say with this? It’s not just a matter of changing men and indeed societal attitudes towards women. It’s also a matter of building up women’s self-confidence, teaching women how to be competitive and independent. And you have to start at school with encouraging and introducing women into IT. Because really: “Computing is too important to be left to the men” (quote from Karen Sparck-Jones).
UPDATE: I have heard from several men that they find that quote rather offensive and read it as in “we should not trust men with computing”. That is absolutely not the way I read it. I want it to be read as an encouragement to women to go into computing – it is an important field for the future of humanity and half of humanity is not taking part in shaping it. That’s just not right.
Further reading material:
- V.R. McKinney, D.D. Wilson, N. Brooks, A. O’Leary-Kelly, B. Hardgrave “Women and Men in the IT Profession”, Communications of the ACM, Feb 2008, Vol 51, No 2, pp 81-84. – this has an analysis of the perception of technical women and men of their work quality, where interestingly not much of a difference exists
- V. Galpin “Women in Computing Around the World”, SIG CSE Bulletin, Vol 34, No 2, June 2002. – this has quantitative numbers on the share of women in IT in different countries and I was surprised to find out that Thailand has more than 56% women, and Malaysia and Singapore more than 50% – seemingly, Asian countries don’t face the same issues
- Pia Waugh “Heroes” Proceedings LinuxChix Miniconf, LCA 2008, January 2008. – while the percentage of women in FOSS is even lower than in other technical areas, Pia points out a number of role models and a strategy to overcome issues