“IT’s a mad men’s world”

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.

xkcd: how it works

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:

9 thoughts on ““IT’s a mad men’s world”

  1. Hey Silvia,

    Great blog post! Just to add something little, I think the reason the issues are less so in some Asian countries is because a) women are more encouraged into “technical” and “intellectual” jobs than in Western countries, and b) they don’t have such a strong gender association with ICT anyway, and thus less pressure on women in the first place.

  2. Hey Pia,

    Cool – those reasons completely support my theory from above about things we have to change, and that right from school days on: get girls to feel technical jobs are normal for women and make them feel confident about it.

  3. I also understood the quote as “we should not trust men with computing”, but I really don’t find that offensive unless the person quoted is dead serious (which I doubt is the case). About women in IT, I sort of always assumed that the main reason there were few is that women tend to be more “socially-oriented” and thus prefer to interact with people than machines. But I could be wrong. If IT is anything like the real world, I’m sure more women would lead to less messy software 🙂

  4. Jean-Marc,

    I believe you are right and women do indeed prefer socially-oriented jobs. However, I disagree with the common understanding that working in computing means locking yourself in a room and just interacting with the technology. I think the computer is not just a means to produce code, but it is also a communication means. Code hardly ever gets produced in total isolation – there are social interactions necessary, even if they may be “just” through irc, email, or VoIP. Maybe we need to change the societal perception of “computing” being a nerd’s world to make it more attractive for women.

  5. Keep in mind that computers, as a means of communicating are no longer restricted to IT jobs. So, while IT people communicate too (using a computer or otherwise), the job itself is about machines and still involves relatively little social aspect (e.g .compared to any health-related job). What I also always found interesting is the ratio of women in various sciences. It goes from nearly none in physics, to a large number in biology. Surely, there’s something else there than just the social aspect.

  6. Good post. You make some great points that most people do not fully understand.

    “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).”

    I like how you explained that. Very helpful. Thanks.

  7. great post
    i like this statement “half of humanity”
    i was raised in a very rural area with very clearly defined male and female stereotypes. It wasn’t until i was 18 one day i had a revelation while in the back seat of a car with three woman friends that I blurted out that “woman were humans also”. After the laughing stopped I finally realised that they were the other half of humanity, not some sub/other species. I tell you that story of myself only to point out the other side, Men are raised seeing woman in a stereotypical role that often excludes seeming masculine behaviours, roles and abilities. The cartoon says it all. The filter we are given says that woman cant do stuff. Even now when I come across woman in IT I often am amazed by their ability and have to remember my lesson from when i was 18. Now i am even more annoyed when men in IT continue to further the ideas that women are not capable when they so clearly are.
    Nice article!
    By the way, this is one of the reason we are running the geek girl blogger series on http://www.spyjournal.biz – thanks for participating Silvia.

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