Why the Telegraph is wrong on women in IT

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Reading the half-baked arguments of the Telegraph's Milo Yiannopoulos is both depressing and exasperating. His "discrimination does not exist" blog can be summed up in one statement: men good, women bad.

He says women should stop whinging that they get a raw deal in tech, because IT careers should be based on merit. Whinging undermines the achievements of those women who are already succeeding in technology. So if more women were technically gifted, more women would go into the sector. It's that simple - the reason there aren't many women in IT is that they're naturally just not very good at it. It's an argument I've heard before, although generally in less stark language and usually by some old fat bloke in Claridges or Parliament.

The problem I have with Yiannopoulos' carping is that he makes the limiting assumption that merit, or ability, is the only thing that matters when it comes to doing well in IT. Either he is wilfully and deliberately twisting the point women are trying to make, or he is truly misunderstanding it and genuinely believes what he is saying. If the former, he's probably doing it to increase interest in his blog, and at least, I suppose, he is stoking debate. If the latter, he's just a bit thick.

Before the horse gets so high I fall off, here's his first point. He appeared on a panel discussing the issue of women in technology at the Geekn'Rolla event, hosted by TechCrunch.
 
"Well, what a lot of fuss my impromptu appearance on the Just A Girl panel at yesterday's Geek'n Rolla caused. Whinging about what a raw deal girls get in tech is not only rubbish, I said, it's also massively patronising to other girls."

If only all of us could be spectacular enough to cause a fuss among hysterical girls with a little impromptu appearance. What a clever boy he must be. He doesn't really go on to explain how, exactly, wanting to boost the number of women in IT is patronising to the women already there. The argument is unclear and illogical. And from the testimony of colleagues who attended the event, there was no "whinging" done at all - just intelligent debate.

It's also unclear, but simultaneously hugely patronising, why he refers to "girls" in IT. As far as I'm aware, there aren't that many female software programmers who are under 18. You never hear about boys in IT. It may seem like a small point but the use of "girls" instead of "women" implies immaturity and a lack of experience, and should be stamped out. Incidentally, he also refers to women who do well in IT as "brilliant chicks". So if the bird analogy is extended, does that make him a brilliant cock?

His next point, printed as a transcript from the discussion:
"Milo: Finds this discussion patronising to women. There are reasons which have nothing to do with prejudice why women are not more involved in the tech scene. Do we need to change the game? [...] No! We shouldn't be apologising for having fewer women in a sector in which men naturally perform better [...] We need a serious, systematic study that looks at the actual reason why women are not in tech, rather than tiptoeing around each other with anecdotal evidence."

The main sentence here is the third: "We shouldn't be apologising for having fewer women in a sector in which men naturally perform better". This is just offensive - and, incidentally, patronising to women who have worked hard to get where they are in IT, and who now hear they're "naturally" less good than their male colleagues. He offers no evidence showing men perform better in technical realms than women, and doesn't explain his reasoning. He seems to think it's true just because he says it is. There is no evidence that men are naturally better suited to IT than women. The lack of women in the sector is unrelated to women's ability - it is down to other factors.

Yiannopoulos goes on to call for a "serious systematic study" into why there are not more women in technology. This is actually one of his more positive points - at least he seems to be acknowledging that there are reasons why women don't choose IT that are not related to their "lack of ability". But if he'd bothered to do a Google search he'd realise there's large amounts of research already available.

Next: "Leisa to Milo: I think you're implying that the reason there are more men in tech demonstrates that they're the best people for the job. What about people who are as talented but can't make the same commitment because of family commitments?
Milo: It's not fair to suggest that men don't make sacrifices when they choose to work 20-hour days."


I'm amazed he chose to reprint this exchange. His point is totally unrelated to what Leisa says. She's talking about people who are unable to work 20 hour days because they need to care for children or other family members. She's not suggesting men don't work hard or make sacrifices for their job. She's saying that some women are simply unable to, however much they might want to. Men are often able to have children, but still put in the hours at work to enable them to succeed - they are sacrificing time with their family, yes, but they have the choice to do so. Many women don't have that choice. The burden of care still usually falls on women, which often gives them less freedom to pursue career goals.

He adds, "Here's the thing: tech is an absolutely brilliant place for women to work. They are welcomed as in perhaps no other industry - especially by men."
 

This may be true - again, he gives no evidence or explanation, but it's true that tech is a great place for women to work, and that they are (usually) welcomed by men. But that doesn't change the fact that they are under-represented, and that there must be reasons for this.

"As Joshua March pointed out yesterday, since most start-ups are founded by developers, and most developers are men, it's natural that a lot of the CEOs on the scene are male. But the tech scene is much bigger than the startups themselves: there's an entire ecosystem of VCs, PRs and journalists. Many of these jobs are done by girls. As Paul Walsh puts it: "The women who want to work in technology are working in technology." (Read his blog post on the subject, "Manufactured anger over the lack of women in tech")
If those women don't "identify" as women in tech, and prefer to call themselves PR girls or journalists, well... whose fault is that? It's not as if they won't be accepted into the community - quite the reverse."

It's not totally clear what point he's making here - it might that there are more women in IT than we think, because of the number of female tech PRs and journalists. These are relevant roles, but I can safely say, being a female tech journalist, that writing about IT is not the same as working in IT. I know nothing about programming or designing a website. I did degrees in economics, journalism and philosophy, and I came from a local newspaper, not IBM. The tech PRs I've spoken to (male and female) have similarly non-technical backgrounds. This doesn't mean they don't play an important role, but the argument we're having should be focussed on the number of women in technical and IT managerial roles, who are linked to the IT industry in a much more direct way. Otherwise, the implication is that men "do things" - they manage teams, they write code, they start businesses. While women write press releases about it.
 
"The question posed yesterday was: how do we get more women into the tech sector? That's entirely the wrong question. We need to find the best candidates for each job. Gender doesn't come into it."

Absolutely: we need to find the best candidate for each job. Gender doesn't come into it - until you realise that many of the best candidates are women, who are not going for these jobs. Why? There are a multitude of answers. It starts in school, where technology and other scientific subjects are subtly, sub-consciously, presented as things that boys do. It continues into adolescence, where girls read magazines telling them how to look nicer, while boys' interests are able to roam far wider. There is plenty of excellent work looking at why girls don't choose IT at school - notably by e-skills, which is also working to get more young women interested.
 
If girls do grow up and decide to go into IT, they don't "whinge". They work hard, as do men, but they do notice that they're the only woman in their team, for instance, or they're one of about 10 women at a networking event for 150 people. I doubt Yiannopoulos has ever tried to imagine what it feels like to be in a minority at work, but it can be alienating and frustrating. It's difficult to get a promotion if you're not on the same wavelength as your boss, or worse, if you're constantly patronised or disregarded when opportunities come up.
 
Ciara Byrne makes a good comment underneath Yiannopoulos's blog, saying, "Working in an environment where you are always the only woman (apart from the secretary) does get wearing and you always feel like an outsider to some degree. While positive discrimination is not the answer, creating an environment which is more female-friendly would help."

That is the point women are trying to make - they're not anti-men, and they're not calling for special treatment, they're just trying to describe their own experiences and think about how they could help more women get involved in the sector. It's obvious that there are plenty of excellent female technicians and IT managers around: the problem is that they make up just 15% of the industry, and there should be more. The caveman proponents of "men good, women bad" arguments are getting increasingly lonely as more and more men decide mixed teams are more successful, but there's still a long way to go.

17 Comments

  • Great article, and one I have spoken with my co-developers (who are all male) and with my two girl developer mates (who are brilliant), and while the guys think don't think it's an issue, at least one of my fellow girl developer agree that more should be done in the way of mentoring etc.

    I think you're right, it is a bit lonely being the only girl, but I never feel like they think of me less because I'm a girl: they respect me as a coworker based on ability, and that's the way I want it. If anything, most girls get more credit and are hired because people would like to have a bit of estrogen on their team, and this sort of attitude causes women to be called chicks, I'm sure.

    Your point though, that "until you realise that many of the best candidates are women, who are not going for these jobs" I completely disagree with. The way you become good at tech is by working hard, putting in the practice and becoming great. There is a bit of element of natural ability, sure, but if you're not obsessed, you're not going to be amongst the best candidates. You're right, women aren't embracing technology when it's time to decide what they want to do with their lives, but it starts way before high school-- many of the best developers I know have been obsessing about computers since they were little kids. Very few girls do, and I wonder if it's the same percentage of little girls that like computers as those who work in the industry. It wouldn't surprise me.

    (And btw, I may be 27, but I'm still a girl. Sure he probably shouldn't be calling people chicks, but I don't think being called a girl is such a bad thing.)

  • As founder and CEO of http://www.thenextwomen.com, the business magazine and community for female internet heroes, I like to add to the conversation. There are many women working in the internet industry as founder, investor or leader, we have list them in our database and frequently profile them and thier websites. Hurdle to growing a business for women: 1. acces to finance, 2. leadership. There are many organisations that are dealing with these issues, so I'll expect it will be much better, as women are starting business twice the rate as men. This week there is a deadline to participate in the astia.org investor readiness programme, I encourage any women-led business to apply.

  • If you want more women in the Tech sector start at both secondary and primary level in schools.
    Encourage it here.
    This is where it starts.

  • >> "It starts in school, where technology and other scientific subjects are subtly, sub-consciously, presented as things that boys do."

    Where most teachers are women...

  • I am very excited about being quoted. Fame at last!

    I agree with kat. Technical teams tends to be meritocratic so they do (mostly) respect you if you know what you are doing.

    It's the social aspect that is more of a problem. Even with the best intentions, men can't help identifying with other men and thinking of them first when it comes to jobs, speaking slots at conferences, startup partners or even just going to the pub. Especially when 90% of the available candidates for these roles are other men. One of reasons that it's important to get more women into IT is that otherwise it gets harder and harder for those of us who are already there to keep at it - it's a vicious circle. More mixed teams are just more comfortable to work in.

  • Great comments everyone and thanks very much for your feedback. The debate will continue to rage and its interesting to see the Guardian and the Telegraph taking opposite positions and that's a good thing as its highlighting the issue, which does need addressing.

  • "You never hear about boys in IT"

    Nor do you hear about men in IT - just women - so what's your point and what time will my tea be ready?

  • I gave a training course last year to a team developing manufacturing software at a machine tool factory in Germany, and 7 out of the team of 12 were female. Startlingly different from the UK or US, especially in a manufacturing environment. One has to ask why. I'm sure it's a cultural reluctance to make that career choice rather than any barrier to entry. (Same reason that we have so few male teachers.) It's partly the general poor reputation of engineering as a career and profession, which affects boys too, and it's almost certainly something to do with the tendency of children to categorise things as boyish or girlish activities (which is very hard to fight against).

    And it's not just gender stereotyping: read Obama on his visit to Google, where he noted how many of the engineers were ethnically Indian or Chinese. I've seen the same thing in Oracle and Microsoft.

  • Actually, while it's true there are far fewer male teachers than female in primary schools, in secondary schools in the UK there isn't too great a gender gap between numbers of male and female teachers (46% male at secondary level according to this piece from the Independent last September), and it's at secondary school where pupils start to make their own choices about the direction of their education.

  • I work for e-skills UK (as mentioned in Rebecca's intitial article) and was really interested by the comments addressed here.

    I totally agree that obviously a candidate should be judged on merit not gender - but what is really interesting is WHY less women choose to go into IT in the first place - and yes, this needs to be addressed from primary school upwards.

    We have done lots of research regarding this issue and it is quite clear that the majority of girls view tech careers as more appealing to the male industry. From projects like CC4G aimed at engaging 10-14 year olds in the field of IT to BigAmbition - a website aimed at 14-19 year olds to inspire them to consider a career in IT, we are addressing these issues and the feedback is extraordinary.

    Girls are instantly grabbed by visual media and have no problems developing and manipulating the 'new' language once it has been portrayed in an interesting and interactive way. The main hurdle is changing the often misguided preconceptions regarding the workplace itself (often presented as a rather sterile solitary dull space) as opposed to opening their minds to focus on the many creative uses for IT and the versatile hours and types of companies and roles that excel in this constantly developing engaging environment.

  • I agree that it's a cultural thing, and I think that most men are keen to have more diversity in a team. I think (or hope!) that it's increasingly a minority of men who think like Yiannopoulos. Plus you're right about the ethnic divisions as well - this could be down to the cultural point again, because IT must have been really pushed in India and China in the last decade as a good career, because there was so much potential in it. A lot of it is about marketing. If the efforts of groups like e-skills continue in schools, it might start to improve.

  • There are proportionally more women at management level in large IT organisations than the engineering level. Or perhaps it just feels that way as smart women make a refreshing change to the cigeretting, loathsome males who run most IT organisation at most levels.

    There are management opportunities wide open for smart individuals who have strong business acumen but who do not have a technology background. There are different challenges for both sexes in these roles.

    A smart female in IT management is a breath of fresh air and can make a big impact so if you are a lady who is considering it, take council from other females in the industry and go for it!

    As an aside, I'm not sure if The telegraph got it wrong...

    The lack of women in IT is a serious issue hampering the industry that needs resolving however this article seems to focus on the authors disdain for the unfortunate language used by the Telegraph journalist rather than stimulating new ideas into the debate.

  • I didn’t like the language he used, this is true. But it wasn't just his language: I also disagree with his ideas and opinions. You’re right that none of what I said constituted anything new, but these (unoriginal) arguments need repeating time and time again, because obviously there are still a lot of people who argue from the other side (which is even less original). You’re also right that the problem is a serious one that needs addressing. I am definitely interested in hearing what men think of the argument – I’m sure there can’t be that many who agree that the lack of women in IT isn’t an issue.

  • I just want to point out some excellent comments made by Mary Fodder on this issue on TechCrunch. She lists practical steps you can take now to get more women into startups and on to conference stages.

    http://uk.techcrunch.com/2009/04/23/just-a-girl-why-we-put-on-the-balancing-tech-culture-debate-geeknrolla/#comment-216195

  • But you're just whinging like he said. You even snipe at the use of "girl", how petty. 1. We don't refer to the "men" in IT, at best they are guys. 2. The very first comment here is from a lady who refers to herself and colleagues as "girls in IT".

    I think the point desperately trying to be made is that there is no need for Harman style "positive" discrimination towards women. The IT industry is more than happy to have them - in certain roles - its just that very few ladies seem to aspire to be involved. as pointed out, something that needs to be addressed in schools by the mostly female teachers.

    "In certain roles" ooops, I said it! It is illegal to discriminate against a female applicant just because she has children etc that she looks after and won't be able to come out in the middle of the night or at the weekend to fix your network or website that is down. But unfortunately most employers in the IT sector have this unreasonable opinion that they'd like their systems to be working 24/7 and that their support staff must be available to deal with any problems.

    And finally nope, I don't agree that the lack of women in IT is an issue, it’s just a natural thing, kind of like the lack of women on building sites perhaps and the lack of men in kindergarten teaching. I’m not saying that there are men and women only jobs, I just pointing out that there seem to be a natural attraction to some areas.

    And now you're going to hate this but ... The last two women that I worked with in IT were both lesbians. Sorry for pointing that out :-)

  • Being a woman in the IT for the last 10+ years, my observations are this.

    In the US at least, the IT field is very much the boys club. Women have endure the trials and tribulations of locker room BS, be thick skinned, and probably lack a sense of smell in some instances.

    I've seen talented women come and go for various reasons, but mostly over the lack of getting the challenging tasks. I myself left a position because I given "girl" tasks like workstation apps vs the server projects my male colleagues would get even though I was more experienced and lobbied for the opportunity.

    I think one of the big obstacles for women is willingness to be bold and prove themselves. Successful women in IT have to be bold. Not afraid to express opinions or hold their own. Additionally, women must continually prove themselves. Every man naturally assumes you got the position based on your looks (especially true if you are easy on the eyes). You have show them you have the mojo, lobby for new challenges and not be afraid to step on toes.

    These are key reasons why women leave this field, not lack of technical acumen or family obligations.

    As for why women don't look at IT as a career is the stigma the field has gotten about the Cheetos stained finger dingy basement boys club. I can't count the number of times you see geeks on the television talking about the some new gizmo. It doesn't appear appealing. Additionally, education doesn't push girls in the general direction either.

    @Barry....sorry about your experience, however I'm straight, successful, dedicated woman in IT who sometimes works 24/7 and has left TONS of men in my dust. ;-P

  • Firing Milo Yiannopoulos was a great step for the Telegraph.

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