Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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The Changing Face of Information Technology

As promised, this month we will explore the ever changing role women are playing in Information Technology. I was curious to find out why the female ranks are thin in IT;  when for years women have known that the technology sector is where the greatest chance of career advancement and occupational longevity resides. When researching this piece, I was surprised at every turn by the number of different way's in which women feel challenged in this industry (of which, unfortunately, space restrictions forbid a thorough examination); and although there is a certain implicit audacity in a male writing on this subject, I hope you find this article as unbiased as possible.

The Interviews

I thought that as I am rather unqualified to comment on the subject from personal experience, I'd conduct some interviews in order to obtain information from involved individuals directly. To this end, I initially telephoned four women (out of twelve eventually interviewed) from different areas of the IT arena and invited them to participate in a group discussion;  feeling the environment would spice up my content by providing a vehicle for debate. This is where I had my first experience with the female perspective. Only one of the four invitee's, Adrienne Roster from Arimtec, actually made it to the event. I must correct myself however, as Kati Mowat of Carleton University got as far as my front door, but then, feeling uncomfortable, decided to return home without ringing the bell and was interviewed days later by telephone. Laurie Deutscher of Micro Electronics felt it necessary to bring along her husband to a later interview. All others consented only to be contacted by phone.

The Fear Factor

This underscores the vast differences in how men and women perceive the world around them. For men, it seems the world is a place where the challenges of life bring meaning to existence. For women, the world appears fraught with dangers to be reckoned with or avoided before concerns of career enter into the picture. (Whoa...you're gonna catch some heat on that one Richards!). What has this got to do with IT? Both Kati and Laurie stated that there is a real fear for women associated with joining the male dominated ranks of the high technology industry. For Kati, this was blamed on negative reinforcement of stereotypical gender roles by the mass media. This included such things as statistical data of the female population in IT managerial positions and Internet demographics.

We are almost daily reminded of the darker side of technology by the media. Why would women want to become involved in an industry that seems populated by pocket protector toting computer geeks, perverts, pedophiles, stalkers and other social misfits? Even online shopping (a concept originally perceived apt to bring masses of women to embrace computer technology) is regarded as entirely too dangerous due to the ever present (but highly unlikely) possibility of electronic fraud. Stereotypes involving women however are also perpetuated by other women... even those employed in the industry.

When questioned "Who is it harder to deal with: males or females?" Laurie Deutscher answered "females". When asked why, she responded "women don't know as much [about IT]" and went further to state that in customer conversations they tend to get off track: "[we] start out talking about computers and end up talking about roast beef". Kati Mowat on the other hand stated that the original aesthetics of computer programs (text based vs. GUI) and ‘female excluding" jargon of the industry were partially to blame for women's lack of acceptance of computers in society. As every industry has esoteric jargon, and aesthetics vs. functionality seems of trivial concern to me, I find myself puzzled by these remarks... but then I'm just a man.

Women in High Tech

For those women that see beyond the media barrier and enter the world of High Tech, how is the environment as compared to that enjoyed by men in the same positions? The first point that bears mention here is the path by which many women come to work in the field. It seems that a great deal of females who are now active in IT were originally involved in more administrative types of tasks for their respective companies and as their expertise was demonstrated to their employers, their responsibilities evolved accordingly. The difference between this evolution and similar male career advancement seems to be that while men move from one set of responsibilities to another as dictated by their title, women often carry over many of their old administrative functions into the new role they now find themselves. This ties in with the generally accepted notion among those I interviewed that women are expected to do more for their salaries than men. Adrienne Roster stated it best when asked "Do you think people expect more or less of you in your job vs. a man in the same position?" She responded "There wouldn't be a man in my position."

Affirmative Action

When asked about California's recent repeal of the Affirmative Action legislation, I was surprised to discover that none of the women I interviewed were in favor of the practice in the first place. No matter how I phrased the question, the best opinion I could come up with was that it could under certain circumstances be regarded as a "necessary evil". This is indicative of the competitive spirit I found in all the women I interviewed; who despite the realization that the deck was stacked against them somewhat, were confident enough in their ability levels to abandon and disdain a crutch engineered to place them at (in their minds) unfair advantage.

The Credibility Factor

One issue common to all those I spoke to was the lack of initial credibility women possess in IT circles. While men seem to be afforded credibility at the outset, women must work in order to attain it. This affects all aspects of social and business interaction in the workplace. For example women frequently "temper delivery of opinion to render it non-confrontational" [Kati Mowat] while men more often say what they mean in a more direct (and perhaps less tactful) manner. This is viewed by some men as wishy-washy; while it seems to form a cornerstone of the female communication paradigm. When asked how women combat this lack of credibility, Laurie Deutscher stated that "You must arm yourself with information". Kati Mowat said that you have to "demonstrate proficiency by example... if they still don't believe it then let them try it themselves."  Of this "proof is in the pudding" concept, Adrienne Roster voiced the opinion that professionalism and ability, though evident under scrutiny, figure small in the careers of those that merely possess them; but to those that demonstrate these qualities in appropriate venues, credence is loaned their assertions; regardless of gender.

The Future

While there are a great many challenges that face women in Information Technology, all the people I spoke with were optimistic regarding the future of their gender in the field. Well aware of the fact that the numbers are slowly changing to reflect a more equitable ratio of sexes in IT, women seem eager to point out the fact that they feel privileged to work in a dynamic industry that seems to hold such promise for the years to come.

Special thanks to all those who offered their opinions for this article, especially Adrienne Roster and Laurie Deutscher who actually attended interviews, and Kati Mowat whose idea the column was.

Originally published in Monitor Magazine, September, 1995, by technology columnist Ray Richards.

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