Redressing the balance: women in IT(Service Management)

If there was ever a time when gender bias should be on the table for discussion, it’s 2013. I recently answered a question on the Back2ITSM Facebook group about diversity in IT. This post includes much of what I said there, with a few extra bits.

I agree with the questioner that the appearance of quotas and affirmative action can create a sense of exclusion But, the inequality exists and without efforts in a number of areas, the tech industry at large will miss out on access to a pool of amazing talent. It won’t be solved with one single action. This goes right back to the beginnings of education and STEM classes. And human nature means we find comfort in being with like-minded folks. It’s not that surprising that guys dominate IT. The majority of school teachers and nurses are females, just to throw in a comparison.

Let’s fast forward to the workplace. Because of our childhoods and societal norms to date, it’s just a fact there aren’t many women in IT. I can remember after a group interview for my first tech support role being told, “you were hired because you’re a woman”. The manager was a woman, and she did also mention I was capable, thankfully. That was informal affirmative action, right there.

We know we like to be with like-minded folks, but men and women are also wired differently and it’s added to by society’s version of how different we are. Generally speaking, women’s self-esteem and self-confidence grows when their value to others is obvious. For men, apparently, they’re able to draw on inner confidence much more successfully. Put that together with seeking like-minded folks and the lack of women in IT, and it’s not hard to see why men dominate IT. They have their networks (of male friends and colleagues) and self-confidence propelling them forward throughout their career.

When women speak out in the IT communities about inequality, it’s not unheard of for them to end up under attack from groups of men who are defending themselves. Does anyone remember when the internet blew up after PyCon in March this year? There have been some sickening displays in the infosec and developer communities—Titstare being another example. But it’s not across the board. There are some great guys out there. But according to the buffoons, women are too emotional to cope with the logic that tech requires, I guess. Or something. But in ITSM, it’s less about the logic of systems and more about people, which is why (I think) our ITSM community has a greater representation of women than the broader tech industry. In the Australian chapter of the itSMF, we have a female National Chair and four of our seven State Chairs are women.

When I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In earlier this year, I resented her views. The message seemed to be, be careful who you marry or be prepared to train him. “Why can’t we all just get on with our lives irrespective of gender?”, I thought. There I was at the question I’m now addressing. My annoyance with Sandberg’s book continues, because in one single chapter she dismisses mentor relationships, but then goes on to describe in great detail how successful they’ve been for her.

I believe women need champions to help them reach their goals. Because men are the dominant majority, those champions need to be men. There is no way I would be where I am now, if it hadn’t been for a well-known and respected male industry leader clearing a path for me. There are certainly women who have encouraged me and helped me, absolutely, and I may have made my way here, but I wouldn’t have gone overseas with my work.

Solutions?

At school, boys should be encouraged to nurture and girls should be encouraged in STEM activities. But each are often ridiculed by their peers (and even adults) when they go outside their “normal gendered domain”.

In professional life, let’s formalise and normalise mentoring programs that aim to propel young people and women who are interested in leadership and progression. Once we’ve normalised this sort of professional relationship between men and women, we might see an increase in respect between the groups and something closer to balance.

And, though I don’t feel the gender imbalance quite so much in the itSMF community, I’m proud to see Ruby Australia’s Code of Conduct, and can’t help but see this as a springboard to improve things across the technology sector as a whole.

  • Alastair Houghton

    When women speak out in the IT communities about inequality, it’s not unheard of for them to end up under attack from groups of men who are defending themselves.

    I don’t think making rape threats and so on constitutes “defending themselves”, and I’d also caution against conflating the rabid foaming-at-the-mouth idiots with more reasonable voices — e.g. with the PyCon incident, whatever you think of dongle jokes, there is a strong case that Adria Richards’ behaviour was (a) an overreaction and (b) poor, and it’s entirely legitimate to make that point without being automatically lumped in with the rape-threat idiots.

    Likewise, I’m uncomfortable with the reaction to “Titstare”. It isn’t my cup of tea, for sure, but it seems to me that it was presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner, the audience reportedly found it amusing and actually, it was the same kind of routine that many comedians run day-in day-out without provoking the kind of response that the two Aussies had. A lot of the negative comment on it seems to come from people who weren’t there and decided to take offence the moment they heard the name “Titstare” — a lot of them didn’t even realise that the pitch was an app for sharing photos of men caught looking at breasts, not an app involving pictures of female anatomy. I’m not sure it’s appropriate humour for a tech event — but that’s a point for debate rather than a forgone conclusion.

    On the other hand, the “Circle Shake” thing that followed it, which seems to have attracted somewhat less attention, is just crass and shouldn’t have made it to the stage.

    • Hey, thanks for your comment. Absolutely, it’s legitimate to point out Adria Richards’ poor form of behaviour. I made sure to link to a balanced report of those events. I called out these particular cases because of the “gender wars” that erupted in response. It seems to have been the year of gender debate in tech.

      • Alastair Houghton

        🙂 Certainly does.

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