Women in Computing

Traditional “affirmative action” proved fairly ineffective in increasing the number of women who built a successful career in IT. A close friend suddenly found himself in position to influence efforts in this area by a Fortune 50 IT company. The company’s declared goal is to make IT careers more attractive to women, starting at K-12 level. He asked me for suggestions on how to proceed without create additional discrimination against boys in the process. Any advice?
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61 Responses to Women in Computing

  1. Denis says:

    Based on my IT experience – there no such way, IMHO. Boys and girls just prefer different toys.

    • falnfenix says:

      that might depend on the environment. my fellow geek chicks and i love good tech.

      • Uncle Kenny says:

        Every bell curve has its tails, which is why anecdotes of the “when I was at …” variety have no particular value. The only sure way to fix this situation is to rewind a few million years of evolution and figure out what to change to achieve a different result. Good luck with that.

        While you are at it see if you can figure out how to increase the variance of the IQ curve for women so that its extreme tails have as many women as the men’s curve has men. Then we could stop hearing about “discrimination” as a cause of fewer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.

        • Oleg Volk says:

          I think they are more after attracting that right side of the curve to IT instead of competitive disciplines.

          • Uncle Kenny says:

            OK, I’ll push one more step. It’s not the right “side” of the curve, it’s the right “tail” of the curve, the one where men outnumber women 3 or 4 to 1. Flip the issue around. Where I work in IT (see, it’s impossible to talk without anecdote), there are more Chinese men than Caucasian men, as the East Asian bell curve has an even bigger right tail than ours does. Should we worry about getting more white men into IT? No. As an aside, we do have one woman on our ten person team. She self describes as a tom-boy and she might even be the alpha-dog in the pack.

            Here’s the short version, pink keyboards (or other real attractions) are not going to get more women into IT … or into plumbing, for that matter. Your dealing with some immovable human nature stuff here, not better recruiting. I feel a blog post of my own coming on.

  2. Tango says:

    IT environments almost invariably have a very sexually explicit environment. I’ve worked a LOT of IT jobs and that’s been the case every single time because… it’s a bunch of guys holed up together all day long. Destroy that attitude in a work environment and make sure it STAYS dead. No tolerance for it. That’s the largest factor in driving women from a work environment. It’s simply not as humorous to them as it is to us. To be honest, it’s truly rather offensive language most of the time.

  3. Adrian says:

    Paid maternity (and paternity) leave. As much as you can. Or given that it’s IT, combine it with work-from-home.

    • falnfenix says:

      amen on working from home. more workplaces should consider this as a viable option. it would be difficult for support staff, but programmers can do what they do just about anywhere if they have good hardware at home and on the road and access to the network at the office.

      • cramer says:

        Programmers are not “IT”, strictly speaking. A lot of what I do is a matter of logging into the appropriate machines. But then, a lot also requires actually touching systems. I cannot “phone in” swapping hard drives, or cycling tapes. Sometimes, you need to physically push a reset button.

        • falnfenix says:

          we treat our programmers as IT personnel.

          notice, i said it would be difficult for support to work from home all the time – i know, i’ve tried it, and without question i have to be there to handle something at least once daily. this also depends on the site. if an IT/Informatics group is set up with tiered support, it’s significantly easier for tier 1 to work from home. problem is, most managers won’t give their employees that luxury.

  4. Leonid says:

    I’d say childcare – having a kindergarten nearby that works long hours would definitely help.

  5. Bonnie says:

    I’m glad I’ve never worked where Tango did. I’ve always worked at larger companies, where the atmosphere is more professional. And I’m glad I don’t accept the socially-influenced status-quo like Denis does, because I’ve sure enjoyed the last 15 years as a Unix sysadmin, despite being female.

    Oleg, have your friend reach out to the ACM’s Women in Computing Group:
    http://women.acm.org/

    USENIX is another great industry group, holding conferences on various topics (I attended LISA once, the Large Installation System Administration conference). They have a student group he could work with:
    http://www.usenix.org/students/students.html

  6. Montag says:

    After a decade+ in the IT industry, I’ve come to the conclusion that women simply don’t care about computers. To be in IT to begin with, you have to be fairly enthusiastic about computers. There’s the one in ten thousand outlier, but for the most part, for what reasons I can only speculate about, the IT field is not one women find to be an interesting pursuit.

    It’s not from sexism or anything else – it’s the subject matter. IT seems to appeal to a certain mindset that’s slightly anal-retentive and slightly obsessive-compulsive. These traits seem to be rarer in women, especially the OCD one.

    Everyone should have the chance to do what makes them happy. The best thing one could do is allow young women to enjoy a standard day in the IT industry. Finding what excites you as far as a career path goes tends to have a lot to do with experiencing the real thing in the field.

    It’s a dangerous fallacy to be obsessed with – the one where people believe that because the gender ratio of the human race is a certain makeup, all other areas must have that same makeup or something is wrong. You could say ‘goats eat grass, therefore everything that eats grass is a goat’, but it’d be obviously silly. Not sure why this one is any tougher.

    Let people do what makes ‘em happy and don’t obsess about stats.

    • falnfenix says:

      i think part of the interest really starts early. i can remember friends whose parents would tell them not to play with electronic devices because “men know what to do with that, women don’t” and “they’re dangerous.” this was in the 80s, when computers in the home were still new.

      if schools offer more rudimentary computer classes at the elementary level, i think that would change.

  7. Wildman7316 says:

    I would have to agree with Montag and Denis and wonder why nobody is concerned about the “lack” of female welders or auto mechanics or plumbers or…

    Likewise there are a bare few jobs where women predominate, librarians, nursing)secretary, flight attendants (though that’s changed over the last decade or so).

    Some People are unable to or refuse to concede that (on average) men and women think differently and have different interests and because of this gravitate to different professions. It would be different if there was some stereotypical or cultural bar to women in IT, but the number of women who are in the field and do well in it show that is not the case. To do what this unnamed corporation wants to do would require rewiring the human genome. What I see is somebody who sees a well paying career that could be done by women but mostly isn’t and for whatever reason (lack of qualified applicants or a desire to flood the market and thereby drive down salaries) and wants to change that.

    • Flint says:

      Actually, being a mechanical contractor, I can assure you that our industry publications frequently run stories concerned with the lack of female plumbers.

  8. Rivrdog says:

    Now that we’re briefed on the reasons that it CAN’T be done, let’s look at how you approach this sort of problem.

    First in your process is analysis of the work to be performed. There is ZERO reason that at the basic level, women can’t do IT. There are female engineers, some good ones, in fact, so that tells me that the precise nature of the engineer’s side of IT is well within the reach of women.

    The abstract side of IT is probably what most of the commenters is referring to. IT work HAS an abstract side, but I find NOTHING in either my life experiences or in my study of abnormal psychology to indicate that women don’t handle abstract problem-solving well.

    There is ONE area where I think that men excel, and that’s a combination of both the abstract side and high-volume production side, i.e.: code-slamming. To my knowledge, few women in IT even try it out, and since high-volume work is a discipline thing, maybe the discipline to hammer code out is where the equality thing will fall down, but originating code is a small part of IT, overall.

    No, it’s about process and metrics, and IT lends itself to analysis on both of those scores, so I posit that the lack of women in IT is mostly a perceptual thing, and perceptual things ARE amenable to fixing.

  9. meep says:

    No special chick stuff, please.

    The ones who are interested and are good at it will run away, because they’re tired of this crap (at least, I found such things highly offensive. Just ugh.) There will never be the 50-50 male-female numbers in the U.S. in tech , just because there are so many career choices for everybody (esp. if you’ve got some social skills), but there’s no reason to make things worse by offending part of the population.

    I agree with those above who talk about having a professional atmosphere. That definitely helps. And by “professional atmosphere”, I mean people dress like grownups, have appropriate hygiene, etc.

    I happen to have just joined an office where I’m the only female in the particular position, and going back years, I don’t think they’ve ever had a woman in this position (it’s just doing insurance industry research – not a computer thing – there are plenty of women in the insurance industry analysis side). But I don’t think it much matters. It was something I noticed in passing. It’s a very professional group, and I didn’t think it was uninviting or anything like that. If someone started making a point of me being the only woman, I’d get pissed off.

    • meep says:

      (and of course, there’s more to a professional atmosphere than dressing and smelling appropriately. But it seems some people need to be told about that very basic level.)

  10. Kevin says:

    It’s hard. There are not very many in the crunchy side of IT. There are more women sysadmins that I’ve met than female commercial electricians, but it’s a similar issue.

    Avoid credentialism in HR. A computer science degree is pretty much totally worthless for a windows sysadmin etc. Many of the best systems/network/security guys I’ve worked with have no degree.

    Flexible schedule/work-from home stuff is helpful to women with kids, as they end up responsible for a majority of childcare. The majority of IT positions don’t need to be in he office every day, or even most days. The trick is effective management of people who are not always around (and their careers).

    Bad managers don’t know how to effectively hire, manage, motivate or retain staff. In my opinion IT management in most companies I’m familiar with seems to be generally significantly worse than other business management in the company. So perhaps working at ensuring that IT supervisors and managers understand how to hire and manage people is the best focus. Companies with effective managers don’t have the “sexually explicit atmosphere” mentioned above.

    • cramer says:

      I would have to say the time commitment is one of the biggest problems for women in IT. IT is not a simple 9-5 type environment. It’s more of a “when shit happens” type of thing. IT can be highly stressful in intense, short bursts. (and boring as hell the rest of the time.)

      There have been many days where I’ve worked the usual “9-5″ and then went back to work from midnight to 4-5am — to minimize disruption to normal business. Or been called while on vacation to fix something.

  11. Rygor says:

    Easily. Ask the Feds to take over IT industry and to enforce mandatory low salaries – men will run away to more green pastures and females will take their places !

    • Denis says:

      That is a good point. When I have started to study Computer Science in 1987 back in Russia, it was considered as mostly female discipline: in our group where only 3 guys and about 20 girls. The main reason for this that you could not get much working in IT in the Soviet Union.

  12. Starfish says:

    If your friend has time, have him read Unlocking the Clubhouse by Jane Margolis and Allen Fisher. It is not a very long book. If he doesn’t have time to read it, some of the major points boil down to eliminating the “Boys Club” mentality that is somewhat addressed by Tango, offering benefits to all that would appeal to women (like the ability to work from home, generous parental leave, childcare,) and creating a supportive environment.

    Women have the tendency to be dismissive of the skills that they do have and can be discouraged by harsh criticism. This means that women who are performing at a fairly competent level will see themselves as being less competent than men who are not as talented. That means you have to find a way to get across things that need improvement without being a jerk about it. This is hard and something that I had to learn at my current job.

    What was interesting about the third point is that women from other countries did not grow up in the US and face the constant “women are no good at things involving computers” crap that is tossed up by several of the men in this thread. Many of them were also supporting other family members. That means that they did not get as easily discouraged as women who grew up in the US and had the luxury of getting out of the field.

  13. Meredith L. Patterson says:

    There are some fine remarks here about how to make the career field more attractive to women who are actually in it, but nothing so far about K-12.

    My best advice here is mentorship. Being able to succeed in an IT career requires knowing how to ask the kinds of questions that IT education (whether with respect to programming or sysadminning) teaches a person to find the answers to. If a person isn’t able to identify the right questions, s/he won’t be able to apply taught skills effectively because problems just look like black boxes. Why can’t the CEO send mail? Could be happening at the MUA, could be happening at the MTA. What are the error messages? What do they mean? What happens when I make this change? Or, perhaps, why is this code leaking memory? What happens when it runs out of stack space? Okay, follow the stack trace, now follow the breadcrumbs through the source and figure out where memory is being allocated but never freed. Where should it be freed so as not to destroy a value that still needs to be used? And so on.

    This style of thinking requires a certain reliance on one’s own intuition that is often not encouraged in young girls. “If there’s a problem, go find an adult to solve it” only teaches people to be helpless; what are they supposed to do when they become adults? I had two excellent mentors when I was young who taught me, by example, how to ask the questions I needed to ask in order to solve problems on my own: my father, an engineer, and my mother, a teacher and historian. From them I learned how to identify the causes of a problem (and distinguish them from distractions, things that are also going on but don’t actually affect the situation at hand), how to evaluate possible solutions, and most importantly, how to encourage myself to keep trying new ideas even after failing repeatedly.

    A childhood mentor provides a sort of test environment in which a child can explore freely and gain self-confidence; the mentor is there to provide expert guidance if the child gets stuck or lost, but the child gets to do the driving. For girls who aren’t fortunate enough to have parents like mine, having an IT mentor who helps instill in them the self-knowledge that they indeed do have the aptitude to learn and apply IT skills — by virtue of the fact that they’ve already done it — has the potential to be a life-changing positive experience.

  14. lkasdf says:

    Easy: Give the girls massive doses of testosterone around puberty, and keep it up for the rest of their lives.

    I have no idea what the point is, but if you want more women to be imitation men, the obvious starting point is to find out where they differ biologically, and change the women accordingly.

    You could also try operant conditioning: Give girls electric shocks when they try to play with “feminine” toys, and give them treats when they play with toy trucks or whatever.

    All of this will make their little lives pretty rotten, but it’s for the benefit of the collective, so they’ll just have to suck it up.

    • falnfenix says:

      i hope you’re just posturing and you don’t actually think that way.

      • ChrisJ says:

        I read that with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Though as I noted a few posts further down, I do know people who might actually take what lkasdf wrote literally and as reasonable advice.

  15. Nikki says:

    I think the biggest thing to be done in education is to equally encourage the genders. I was always the girl who liked to play ball with the boys more than to play dolls with the girls, and that was always ok. In school, when I was better at math and science than English and history it was a big deal because I’m female. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, as everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. My abilities eventually leveled out and I now do a very Englishy job in a female dominated field, but, I’m also the IT go to in my office, despite a lack of training and ability. I do know how to ask Google though, which seems to be what gives me the edge that I don’t want.

  16. ChrisJ says:

    Believe it or not but I know someone who’s more or less doing that. Pink is banned in their house, and “girly” toys like baby dolls, etc… aren’t allowed either. And they’re forced (not encouraged), to play with chemistry sets and electronics.

    So far it doesn’t appear to be working, they still want to be teachers and writers, and muster to answer veterinarian when their mom asks them (which is ok-ish because it’s like being a dr.).

  17. Some years back the comedian Sinbad did a series of “math is cool” commercials. I know some people who gave math a second look on the strength of those commercials. Perhaps something similar, using someone girls can identify with can encourage more young women to build the basic skills for tech fields in general.

  18. staghounds says:

    Rant- do they have a similar program to attract red haired or left handed people into IT? How about AB negative blood types?

    Rant over.

    Dare I say it, you get what you pay for.

    Find out what more girls and women consider “pay” and link that to IT. Even a five year old knows what she’s willing to work for.

    If there is an actual REASON to do this- like women do some particular thing in IT better than or differently from men in IT- then pay extra for that different performance and presto, women (or womanly-talented men) will be all over it.

    Doesn’t have to be money, there are all sorts of pay.

    Nobody has to “attract more men who can play basketball” to NBA basketball, or “attract more people who can play the violin well” to concert violin playing.

    If they are just trying to appease the diversity gods, figure out how many women will do this year and hire total incompetents in their forties and fifties from dead end, minimum wage, hard condition jobs. . Explain to them that their new job is to sit in an office with a title on the door and tell anyone who asks how wonderful Xcorp is to women in IT. Pay them more than they could ever have made in their old jobs as waitresses or hotel cleaners. Budget it as an advertising expense, never let them actually do any IT work, and get on with business.

  19. Raven says:

    Have a good proportion of women engineers in the people doing your outreach programs for K-12, and show them interacting with other engineers of all genders as equals. Having a visible role model who’s interested in the field and demonstrably competent is important for children who are deciding what they are interested in and what they’d like to do in the future. So, by showing them that there are already accomplished and achieving women in the field, you up the odds that they’re going to decide that this is something that they can do. As a child, my scientist heroes were mostly male, but I remember how profoundly cool it was when I discovered Marie Curie and Barbara McClintock. There’s a definite “if they can do it, I can do it!” in there.

    Conversely, the “women interested in this just don’t exist” is actively discouraging. (See: many of the other commenters. Ugh.) Young women get plenty of this message growing up, and it undercuts the ones who might want to become mathematicians, scientists, and IT professionals. By telling us that we don’t exist, it forces those of us who are interested to constantly swim upstream against the tide of “everyone knows you can’t do this” opinion, and tends to make women who are interested prove themselves and their geek chops over and over in a way that male geeks do not. Removing this discouragement will help female geeks without hurting anyone.

    In the school programs, have the presenters call on girls as well as on boys, and encourage the participation of girls. It’s unhelpful when boys get the lion’s share of the teacher’s attention — here are guidelines from an association for science teaching about how many teachers unconsciously do that, and how to avoid doing that.

    I agree with the previous commenters’ recommendations to reach out to associations for women in computing for additional ideas. There are job boards at several such associations which may help your friend reach out to qualified women when hiring, and let them know about the openings at your company. This may increase the proportion of female applicants, which may in turn result in a higher percentage of women on staff.

  20. Rose Fox says:

    Here via Raven. I’m a lifelong tech geek who was fortunate to be encouraged from day one by parents and educators. Here’s what worked for me:

    1) People said “You can” instead of “You can’t”. (I’m looking at you, upthread naysayers.) Why is it such a radical idea that children respond well to encouragement but are discouraged by scorn? Other useful phrases: “Try this” and “What do you think would happen if” and basically anything that encourages exploration and learning and respects a child’s ability to think and reason and innovate. Encourage parents and educators to encourage girls to do geeky things.

    2) I had computers in my home from babyhood. Unfettered access to the tools of the trade from a very young age is absolutely key. Geeks love to tinker, and you can’t tinker when the only computer you have access to is school property–or when you don’t have access to computers at all. Time spent at home alone, taking apart a chassis or plagiarizing other people’s code so you can figure out how to write your own, is what takes computers from “useful tool” to “something I want to play with for the rest of my life”. Give girls computers, remind them to disconnect the power source before taking them apart, and then give them private time to play around and see what they can do. This is very much a class issue and needs to be treated as one.

    3) I had people I could go to with questions. My father published books of BASIC programs and my stepfather worked for IBM. But lots of girls don’t know anyone who works in the tech fields (and again, this is very driven by class and by location), so they’ll need to be introduced to an adult geek who can encourage them and answer their questions. Sponsor mentoring groups and speakers’ bureaus that can create those kinds of connections.

    4) I had role models. I never had any reason to question whether women could or should work with computers because I’d always known ones who did: my elementary school and high school computer instructors were smart, funny, interesting women. If you want to encourage girls to become women who work in IT, hire women to work in IT and to teach computer classes right now. There will always be people who say “Girls can’t/shouldn’t do that”–give the girls ammo to fight back.

    5) I was willing to promote my own abilities. This mindset must be taught to girls in early childhood before our toxic culture drums it out of them. Women still have to fight to be noticed in IT, and often we have to fight ourselves as well as the people around us. Fortunately, a geeky mindset often lends itself to a reasonably dispassionate evaluation of one’s own skills. After that it’s just a matter of telling the truth, loudly and often, about the things one is genuinely good at, and demonstrating that skill where others can see.

    When I got to college, I signed up for advanced programming classes. On the first day of class, I was startled to realize that I was the only woman in the room, but I wasn’t dismayed. I sat up front, took notes on my laptop, and asked smart questions. Within a month the other students were asking me for help, and the next semester one of my professors made me his TA. I spent several years repairing computers and doing technical training until I was lured into a second career of writing and editing. So if you want to try to encourage other girls and women to get into the tech field, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the above.

    As for encouraging girls without “creating additional discrimination against boys”, I suggest you first focus on getting the gender balance in IT to 50-50, and then worry about how to keep it there.

  21. Lyle says:

    Improve the general quality of education by a couple orders of magnitude. No other action required. People will choose to study what interests them and it’s no one else’s business. Saying you want more women in this or that field is like saying “we” have too few men in the quilting clubs. Too few for what? Who’s this “we” person and why does he not have something worthwhile to occupy his time?

    The improvement in education would be as easy as getting the government totally out of it. Done. Carry on.

  22. Pingback: The objects of the linkspam gaze (26th April, 2011) | Geek Feminism Blog

  23. JoeG says:

    This isn’t a problem that can be solved in the K-12 demographic. The problem is systemic; IT is slave labor (mostly because no one outside of IT understands it).

    Women don’t want to work in the environment (where you are responsible for EVERYTHING, even things that are clearly not your domain). Fix IT as a whole, and women will come, just like in every other profession.
    I personally think a large part of it is that there is not very much recognition in IT, and women seem to require that far more than men. When a good sysadmin does their job well, no one even knows they did anything. That’s not the easiest thing to handle.
    Also IT tends to be a lonely career, you work for long stretches in isolation (relative isolation anyway), and women are more social than men (this is a generalization, but one that I’ve found to be very true).
    How do you fix issues like that? I guess you COULD work on some sort of indoctrination program at the K-12 level, but SHOULD you?

  24. T says:

    As a lady who was once fascinated by computers and mathematics in general, you know what turned me off? The 6 guys in my mathematics class (the highest one offered by our school) sitting around making ‘dead baby jokes’ or ‘rape jokes’.

    I miss maths sometimes, but I don’t miss the company.

  25. docjim505 says:

    Um… just WHY is it important to have more women in IT? It strikes me that the Fortune 50 company would be rather more concerned with the qualifications of their employees rather than their gender (or race, color, creed, national origin, blah-blah-blah).

    If they want to remain a Fortune 50 company, that is.

    That being said, my own anecdote. My university wanted to get more women into physics. Their solution? A special course in physics for women and minorities which dumbed the curiculum down and placed more emphasis on “hands on” (“What happens when the ball rolls down the ramp?”) and less emphasis on icky things like math and equations. In other words, they made the stereotype – that woman and non-Asian minorities can’t do math and science – official.

    Want to get more people into anything? Train them to the same high standard and treat them like people, not numbers in a diversity checklist. Or did Rosie the Riveter get her job because Lockheed and Douglas just wanted to get more women into the aviation field?

    • ChrisJ says:

      Why would they care? Primarily because they are terrified of the solution that government would force on them if they don’t at least make a good effort attempt.

      If anything, the more pressing issue is the lack of domestic students seeking the necessary skills. Further compounding the problem is the lack of H1B visas for those students who do want to get the skills and come here to work and contribute to our economy.

    • K00kyKelly says:

      They care because companies with better diversity have better financial performance.
      http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/4389.html

      • docjim505 says:

        The article cited does not make it clear that IBM enjoyed any special financial rewards from its diversity initiative. The numbers cited have mostly to do with how many women / homosexuals / transgendered / minorities / etc. they hired, not with how much their profits increased. The exception is an EXTERNAL effort:

        IBM’s efforts to develop the client base among women-owned businesses have quickly expanded to include a focus on Asian, black, Hispanic, mature (senior citizens), and Native American markets. The Market Development organization has grown revenue in the company’s Small and Medium-Sized Business Sales and Marketing organization from $10 million in 1998 to hundreds of millions of dollars in 2003.

        In other words, IBM did what any sensible organization would do: they looked for new clients. While I suppose it’s good to have sales people who can make an immediate connection to a potential client (“Hey! The sales rep looks and talks just like me!”), this article did not otherwise seem to provide much evidence for the financial benefits of internal diversity.

        It would also be of some interest to know how much IBM spends on its “chief diversity officer” and his staff.

        • K00kyKelly says:

          From the top of the article…
          “By deliberately seeing ways to more effectively reach a broader range of customers, IBM has seen significant bottom-line results,” says Thomas.

          IT is nearly always a customer based organization… either internal or external customers.

          IBM was able to find more customers by serving their customers better. They were able to serve their customers better by drawing from a wider base of experiences (not just white straight male experiences).

          The Fortune 50 company IT company would likely care about serving external customers better allowing them to increase loyaity and their customer base. They’d also likely care about serving internal customers better allowing them to become more efficent and effective.

          IBM is famous for their diversity initiative due to the high level of success. Many diversity initiative fail for a variety of reasons that seem obvious in retrospect (like the university physics example you mentioned above). One thing that worked particularly well with IBM’s task forces was for each diversity task force to have an executive sponsor that wasn’t a member of the group. For example the women’s group had a man and the black group had a white person. The executive sponsor of the task force presented the group’s findings and recommendations to the other VPs. This forced the task force to present the issues in a way that was easily understood by people who did not share the experiences of the group.

  26. Deborah says:

    Hi, I’m a woman who loved being in unix systems until I left the field, not because I didn’t love the tech (I do) but because I couldn’t bear the work environment. I agree with the women above who say mentoring — top-notch female mentors are why I went into IT in the first place. Raven and RoseFox are spot on.

    It’s not clear if your friend is also planning on implementing fixes AT the company. If so, here are some environmental problems I’d recommend fixing:

    I couldn’t stand that everything was a size contest. (“I programmed by own device drivers using only the 1s and 0s on my keyboard in my free time.” “Really? Well *I* programmed the language which was Brian Kernigan’s secret inspiration for awk by manually wiring together XOR gates in the 29 hours I found in everyday by clever mathematical tricks.”) One’s ability to do the job well or even brilliantly was never as important as one’s ability to proove one had been coding since the age of three, or one’s ability to work on multiple voluntary or open source projects. (Note: the privilege to work on voluntary coding is one which fewer women in IT share, because the bulk of household and family care falls to women, statistically.) Tip: Offices should value the job an employee does and its quality, not the employee’s geek cred.

    I couldn’t cope with how women who dressed in a feminine fashion were (loudly and publically) praised for being hot and belittled as clearly being non-technical, while women who dressed like the guys were explicitly told by management they were unprofessional. Tip: Dress codes should be consistent for men and women in the same job. If the men dress like schlubs, the women shouldn’t be expected not to. If the women dress professionally, men treating them as non-technical because clearly no sysadmin would dress that way should be referred to HR.

    I found the tolerance of porn and sexual commentary in the office disturbing, even when I contributed to it. (Which I sometimes felt I had to, because of the environment. Nonetheless, I wish to hell I’d been slapped down for it at the time.) Tip: Sex talk and pornographic photos should be zero tolerance. We had men AND women made to feel threatened by porn and explicit sexual discussion in the office.

    But I keep coming back to mentoring. From kindergarten through… well, my adult professional life. Mentors are fabulous. Geek culture values being someone who already knows things, and punishes learners. (“RTFM”, anyone? For goodness’ sake, it’s like none of us were ever newbies. And RTFM assumes that the documentation doesn’t suck.)

  27. Lyn says:

    I can tell you what influenced me – other women. My aunt, my sister and my cousin were all established computer scientists by the time I was 13. For me, it was just the natural thing to do.

    They always told me how smart I was, and had faith that I could solve any problem given time. The confidence this gives me is indispensable. The difference between a smart person who can code and a smart person who can’t – is that the person who can, believes they will understand it if they try hard enough.

    People like Kenny shouldn’t be allowed near children – ever. You might as well hit them in the head with a hammer to ensure mental incapacity.

  28. wheelchairgirl says:

    I’m a former IT girl who’s now too disabled to work.

    Remember that men and women often learn differently.

    During one of the downturns, I found myself working at, heaven help me, Kinko’s. I was hired as a desktop publisher and “computer aide” aka the poor schmuck who had to maintain the computer rental stations and help people use them, but I was expected to learn the copiers and printers as well. I’ve always been good with copiers – for years I was the Most Valuable Temp by being the one who could un-jam and finagle the things.

    A guy was hired the same day as me. We went through training at the same time. He had a little less desktop publishing experience or PC experience than I did, and about the same clue on copiers. We’ll call him Brian.

    One day a few weeks later, I asked my boss (a male) to double-check me on how to use the expensive color copier before I ran a large run on it. He commented, “Gosh, Brian’s already figured out how to do this on his own, but you’re still asking me to show you how.”

    I bit back a very snarky comment and rephrased it. “Have you asked Brian’s supervisor how many times Brian’s screwed up and had to re-do a big print run? I double-check things and I sound hesitant because I am *careful*. Brian experiments, doesn’t double-check, and has wasted three times as much paper and ink and expensive machine time as I have. I always double-check, run a few test pages instead of a hundred, and get the job done right the first time. Ask our supervisor, boss.”

    Boss: “Huh.”

    “Yeah, huh. You’re doing this to that other new girl, too, you know.” (A girl had been hired the week after me and Brian had come on board, and was even more hesitant than I was.) “You praise Brian for being willing to screw up on his own, but you belittle us chicks for going slow and careful. Guys learn by experimenting and screwing up and wasting a lot of ink and paper. Girls seem to go more slowly because we’re more worried about screwing up or breaking a machine or running 500 photo prints at the wrong resolution and having to start over, like Brian did.”

    “Oh, was that Brian?”

    “Yeah. So keep an eye on who breaks the machines and wastes time and resources, and don’t snark at the girls who are careful and trying to be good and not break the machine. I don’t really give a damn, but the new girl gets upset and loses even more self-confidence when you pull that crap.”

    “Thanks for the performance review, employee.”

    “Any time, boss.”

    The same sorts of learning patterns are often found in young children. In toddlers, boys are slower at verbal and social skills, but they’re taking apart the furniture and electronics. Girls are able to sucker people they’ve just met into buying them candy by being cute and talkative, but aren’t interested in mechanical skills.

    This isn’t to say that no males ever develop the ability to speak in sentences and work as a team (even in IT, ahem), or that girls don’t become interested in electronics and engineering and programming. But the fact that each sex will often start one thing earlier makes for a certain amount of gender slant in early teaching.

    It’s vital for the K-12 arena to make sure that girls are given situations where their preferred learning patterns and skills are valued, as well as encouraging them to learn “like boys do”. Girls tend to be more cautious and afraid of failure. What if I don’t put the circuit together right? What if my program doesn’t work? They’re inclined to be discouraged if they get it wrong the first time. (As a culture, we’ve gotten pretty bad at learning via failure anyway.) But any decent programmer knows that they’ve got a low likelihood of getting it right on the first try, and that they’re going to have to try multiple tactics, different solutions, and so on. Making sure girls know there’s no wrong answer, that there’s no social or personal penalty for failure, and that it’s okay to break the operating system or the circuit board, is critical to keeping them interested in things rather than deciding that it’s “hard” or they’re “no good at that boring stuff”. Bright girls are especially prone to having the idea that if they can’t do it right the first time, they won’t be able to learn the skill. Making it okay to fail, rewarding kids not for getting the “one right answer” but for how many different possible solutions they can come up with, will help both genders learn. And it will keep a lot of young girls from walking away from the science and engineering and computer professions.

    While pink keyboards are a bad idea, offering girls the opportunity to work on projects more relevant to their lives may also help budding programmers. Young girls may prefer an assignment to code a social application than one which will rank sports scores. Make sure that textbooks and examples offered are of equal interest to both genders and target multiple learning strategies. Girls might prefer practical or real-world examples, like balancing a checkbook or sending party invitations, to abstract offerings.

    Less emphasis on math might not be such a bad idea. Girls test ahead of boys on math skills until about age 12, when boys’ spatial and math skills tend to outstrip them. But very little math is needed these days to be a programmer, and it certainly shouldn’t be a barrier to learning the skill. I was kept out of advanced science classes because I had mediocre math skills, even though I was getting excellent science grades. As an adult I was diagnosed with dyscalculia – but I have computers to handle numbers *for me* now.

    That age 12 jump is critical. Junior high is when girls lose interest – or are influenced away from – “boy” academics like math, engineering, and science. As a high school freshman, I tried to take aviation science – a branch of shop class – and was the only girl in the class. I dropped it after a week because the teacher informed me that there was no place for women in the aeronautics industry other than as stewardesses. I figured he was wrong, but I also figured I’d learn nothing much from him about designing the rocketships I wanted to build. I was banned from physics and many of the sciences by my poor algebra scores, so I asked if I could take auto shop so I’d have mechanical engineering experience. I was informed that auto shop was not suitable for girls who were on the college track. Apparently college girls never change their own oil filters.

    While that was twenty or thirty years ago, this sort of low-level prejudice and attitude still exists in our schools, and influences the next generation of programmers. Any nerdy girl of today can tell you similar stories of her education, and worse. And while mechanical engineering and physics may not seem immediately related to getting more women into programming, it’s all of a piece; girls being discouraged from doing boy stuff, being the only girl, being subjected to social censure from other women for not being girly enough, and gross sexism from the men and boys. Other industries have lessons on integrating women into the workforce without sexually harassing them, but you’re looking for ways to stop this stuff in school before it starts. Changing the national image of “a programmer” from a scruffy, unhygenic, white male loner into something a girl might want to be when she grows up would be a good thing, too. (Not all programmers are such, but the perception remains – and the tolerance within the industry of sexist and boorish behavior is still way too high, as many of the sensible above commenters can attest. Until we stop tolerating boorish, sexist, unbathed jerks in our NOCs and our conferences, the industry isn’t going to appeal to women. Many of the larger companies have done a good job at enforcing anti-porn rules, HR reviews, sexual harassment rules, and so on. While I experienced problems during my career when I was at small start-ups, I never felt discriminated against for my gender when I worked at one of the top 5 IT companies. Having a female boss certainly helped with that part, but working for a company which had and used a firm discrimination policy made me feel a lot more confident that if something *did* happen, it wouldn’t be swept under the rug.
    And it would certainly help if programmers – and hiring managers – grew up a little. Do you hire the smelly attitudinal guru who writes fast and dirty undocumented code and belittles those he works with? Or a slightly less fast or skilled programmer who is pleasant and cooperative, could talk to a client without needing a handler or translator (or a shower), who codes well and carefully using unit tests and solid reusable code? The latter is a lot more likely to be female – and a better investment in the long run. But those skills aren’t being valued by start-ups and smaller companies, or by a lot of programmer guys. I know which one I’d rather work with – and which one I’ve recommended be hired to my team.

  29. Pashupati says:

    Did we rewind a few million years of evolution when more women became doctors (yes, that kind of doctors)?

  30. K00kyKelly says:

    From the top of the article…
    “By deliberately seeing ways to more effectively reach a broader range of customers, IBM has seen significant bottom-line results,” says Thomas.

    IT is nearly always a customer based organization… either internal or external customers.

    IBM was able to find more customers by serving their customers better. They were able to serve their customers better by drawing from a wider base of experiences (not just white straight male experiences).

    The Fortune 50 company IT company would likely care about serving external customers better allowing them to increase loyaity and their customer base. They’d also likely care about serving internal customers better allowing them to become more efficent and effective.

    IBM is famous for their diversity initiative due to the high level of success. Many diversity initiative fail for a variety of reasons that seem obvious in retrospect (like the university physics example you mentioned above). One thing that worked particularly well with IBM’s task forces was for each diversity task force to have an executive sponsor that wasn’t a member of the group. For example the women’s group had a man and the black group had a white person. The executive sponsor of the task force presented the group’s findings and recommendations to the other VPs. This forced the task force to present the issues in a way that was easily understood by people who did not share the experiences of the group.

  31. docjim505 says:

    I’m not trying to be obdurate, but I am unconvinced. There is a difference to my mind between successfully marketting to a different customer base that happens to be minority- or woman-owned and embarking on a policy to populate the company’s ranks with women and minorities. It seems to me that IBM did well because they found a (to them) new market, NOT because they made sure that they had X number of women and Y number of blacks and Z number of Hispanics working in their organization.^ “Diversity” might be a good thing to have in the sales force, but I don’t see it as a requirement for doing good business, else major US companies (including IBM) would never have gotten as big as they are, relying as they historically have on white men for the majority of their work force and especially management.*

    I suppose that I am offended on some level by the idea that, contrary to fifty years of teaching that people ought to be judged on WHO they are rather than WHAT they are, IBM seems to be explicitly empasizing race and gender in its hiring / promotion decisions. I fail to see how this can be called anything but discrimination.

    —-

    (^) In the same manner, Microsoft and Apple have done rather well because they, too, got into the then-relatively new market of the home computer, NOT because Bill Gates or Steve Jobs took a break from programming to hire women and minorities… or high school students and housewives, for that matter.

    (*) As it happens, the VP of Sales in my company is a southern Asian woman. Did my company hire her for this reason… or because she has a PhD in the field, has several publications and patents to her credit, and is well-known and respected in the industry? Should we have passed her over and hired a white male because the vast majority of our customers are white men, and we therefore need a sales chief who “understands their perspective”?

    • ChrisJ says:

      Something else you might be aware of but other readers may not be, but “diverse” in this new speak is generally only referring to women, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Polish, Czech, etc… all need not apply, you aren’t “diverse” enough.

    • K00kyKelly says:

      @ChrisJ – where is that coming from?

      @docjim505 – Doing diversity right isn’t about changing your hiring decisions to accept less qualified people… it is about removing the barriers that push under-represented groups out over time.

      • docjim505 says:

        Then I suggest that few organizations “do diversity right”. IBM said that they are “setting goals, not quotas”; I would LOVE to hear them explain the difference. And if the “barriers” that are keeping out underrepresented groups are (A) they aren’t especially interested in the field for whatever reason or (B) the minority applicants are underqualified, then I suggest that those barriers need to stay right where they are.

        At any rate, I return to my initial question: why is this important in the first place? The hiring / promotion decision should be driven by a single concern: is this the best person for the job?

        As for the ladies who have complained about sexual harrassment and other inappropriate behavior, I can only say “ditto”: this sort of foolishness does not belong in the workplace.

      • ChrisJ says:

        That comes straight from HR at my Fortune 50 company every time they send me out to a university to recruit engineers. The old literature used to describe them as “under-represented minorities,” but that wasn’t progressive enough so they are now “diverse people.”

        P.S. The nationalities and ethnicities I listed was a brief off the top of my head run down of who many of my coworkers are. Many still working in there home countries, others fortunate enough to be educated here and attain the appropriate visas, and some even citizenship. Yet because they aren’t the right type of race or gender, they aren’t “diverse” according to some.

  32. Rose Fox says:

    Sex talk and pornographic photos should be zero tolerance.

    Not just talk and photos! A female sysadmin friend told me about an office party that included hiring a stripper. That’s upsetting and offensive not only to women but to queer employees, and happily monogamous employees, and anyone else who doesn’t want the sex-for-sale culture in their workplace. Really not okay.

  33. Pete says:

    No advise. Women tend to have other preferences thats it. People should stop fighting the Natural Order, its a waste of time and efford and only causes backlashes.

  34. Pingback: Women & Mozilla » WoMoz: Links to News

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  36. CaesarI says:

    Promote the production, and viewing of media (particularly TV shows and film) showing women in these roles. Veronica Mars does it. It’ll take a while to have an impact though.

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