Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Why aren't there more women in IT?

This question pops up in several male-dominated industries, and is often written about in trade resources that, one would think, would have a pretty good idea as to why more women don't work in or stay in the industry. From reading these couple articles from TechRepublic, and the comments that follow, I have to wonder if any of these people have even met any women.

When the question of, "Why don't more women work in IT" comes up, often it's followed by myths of quotas being used to hire unqualified women and oppressing the poor white men, women choosing fields that allow them to have babies, and stereotypes about creativity and nurturing vs hard skills. Invariably, some people decide that maybe women just aren't as tech-savvy and so the industry will never be 50/50 and why are we trying to fix what ain't broken?

I feel like there's a big elephant in the room that no one is talking about. I acknowledge that, for some women, career planning has to happen hand-in-hand with family planning, because those are their two biggest priorities in their lives. And that a lot of women get pregnant without planning, and that can provide an unexpected hurdle in their career path. Yes, having babies is definitely something that affects many women's careers. This has been talked about at length in many conversations about the derth of women in IT.

But, here's the thing that I don't hear being talked about: to get women involved in IT; often you have to start with girls. Yes, I know, there are programs being started and rolled out that target girls to show them how awesome and fun and rewarding IT work can be. That's super, but that's not what I mean.

But, before those programs and seminars, before college, there is geek/nerd culture. There's World of Warcraft, and Call of Duty, and Fan Expo, and comics, and geeky cartoons, and millions more, and they're largely toxic towards women and minorities. Sure, you don't have to play video games or go to conventions or read webcomics, etc, to work in IT. But these often are our first exposures to the geek world. And if our first exposure has us cancelling our WoW account to get away from the rape threats, then that really doesn't bode terribly well for wanting to purposely work with geeks.

When you're a girl in elementary school and the geeks are the ones who are the most verbally vicious bullies, you're not necessarily gonna want to go out of your way to spend more time with them. When you're a young woman in high school and the geeks are the ones who are cyber bullying you and your friends and passing along the shit dredged up from 4chan, you may just wanna give them a wide berth. When you're a woman in college and the geeks are the ones who are harassing you, stalking you, and doing everything in their power to let you know they're the Nice GuysTM that terrible harpies like you never give a chance, it's quite possible you're not going to want to spend the rest of your career with them.

Now, this is me talking from personal experience. And, to be fair, Not All Geeks Are Like That. Enough of them are, though, and they don't tend to get told off. It's hard to challenge our peer groups, even if it's to ensure the safety of those within them.

When I was younger, I hung out with the geeks because I fit in with them more than any other group, and I fit in by making sure that I was the most vulgar, the most non-PC, and the most offensive. It was my tactic of not being "like other girls" (like millions of other girls have declared before me). After a while, I realized that this really wasn't working for me. And, it really wasn't working towards making my peer group safe for any other women.

This is the same idea with IT as an industry. There may be some women working towards the top of the ladder, but if they are there because they adapted to the misogynstic culture instead of working on changing it, then that doesn't pave the way for other women. If she got there by "not being like other women", that serves to cut the rings for those who would want to come behind her.

Culture matters. In a work environment, it can be the difference between loving a job and going on stress leave. It can be the difference between having a good, rewarding life, and going home crying again because, for the love of all things good and holy, can you seriously not go a day at work without hearing rape jokes and being sexually harassed?

The insidious thing is, more often than not, these things aren't terribly obvious. If someone calls me "darlin'", I'm not going to call HR. I'd be calling them every 5 minutes, and I really don't have that kind of time in the day. A few times I've stopped the person and told them not to call me that, but, again, sometimes the "darlin" flies out in the middle of a convo when I really don't have the time or energy to shut it down and nip it in the bud.

Then there's the sexist jokes that are trotted out. Even being the big, bad feminist that I am, it puts me in the uncomfortable position of not going along to get along. Usually I'll smile and make a joking remark about reporting the comment to HR with enough ambiguity that they're not sure if I'm serious and it tends to give them an out to laugh it off and hopefully think first in the future before making similar comments.

And there's the callers that ask me to transfer them to the IT department when I answer the phone. I am the IT department. No, this isn't an opportunity now to make another sexist joke. Oh, for the love of....

Really, what I go through in a day in a male-dominated industry doesn't look from the outside like anything at all. But it's death by a thousand papercuts. These comments, these reactions, these attitudes, these stares and rumours all add up to a toxic environment that is not welcoming to women.

Here's the thing about changing work cultures - just having people sign a sheet about sexual harassment, doesn't mean they understand it. Just having a print-out in the kitchen about workplace violence doesn't mean that anyone can recognize it when it happens. Just having a policy in place doesn't mean that the workers feel empowered to use it or know when they can or should use it.

We need to do a lot more to make work and society at large more of a safe space for people. The lack of women IT field is just one symptom of a big problem.

Why aren't more women in IT? Why don't we acknowledge that there are a lot of spaces that are still hostile to women and not gloss things over with more sexist tropes and stereotypes?

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