Calling all men who tech - time to speak out for female colleagues

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Sue Black is one of the UK's best known campaigners for more women in technology, and she says it's time for men to stand up and be counted when it comes to women at work.

Things have moved on from 20 years ago - more men now understand the rationale behind the women in technology debate. They get that we're not saying all IT staff should be women (that would be just as unpalatable as the seas of masculine suits that currently greet us at most conferences), but that mixed teams are a better idea for everyone: they're more fun, and the number of ideas (or solutions to problems) floating about increases as diversity does.

Sue said, "Now is the time to make it about all of us, rather than just about women. Twenty years ago there weren't enough men on board but now there are. We really need men talking about it. It's a problem for all of us.

"In the past people would assume I wanted there to be only women in technology and no men. That's wrong - I want a balance. I wouldn't want to work in an all-female environment, the same as I don't want to work in an all male one. You want different people, not everyone having a similar mindset."

More men speaking up might help boost the current glacial pace of change on women at work. A report from the Women and Work Commission said the proportion of women in science, engineering and technology is not expected to reach 50% this century, with current levels at 18.5%. It's not just up to women to change things - it's up to men, who, for the most part, are the ones in positions powerful enough to change workplace cultures and implement new policies. It's difficult for some men to realise why so many male dominated teams pose a problem for women, and how covert sexism continues to affect them. It would help to have both male and female voices explaining things if the opportunity arises, because it makes it much harder to brush it aside or pretend it's just women complaining about nothing.

Until men are fully on board with the need for more equality in technology workplaces things won't change. It remains to be seen if those men who already understand the argument, and recognise the problem, will actually start talking about it on public platforms. This is an issue that affects everyone - it's not a niche problem that affects only women. Men may not feel the effects of a monochrome culture quite so directly, but they do lose out. Hopefully a few more will start to agree that it's no longer just down to women to keep bashing on about this.

5 Comments

  • I agree, as an IT leader (male) I have struggled hard to ensure that my teams have a good gender balance to achieve the benefits of differing skillsets and aptitudes that both sexes bring.

    I have struggled because it has been hard - there simply aren't enough women looking to come into IT, typically female applications would make up under 10% of all CVs received in response to a recruitment campaign. Achieving my goal of a 50/50 balance has been tough, but worthwhile.

    Getting more women into IT is not about "equality", and the promoters of women into IT need to realise this and stop using the word, it's a turn off, it stigmatises those women who do work in IT, and it alienates those who might consider IT as a career choice by emphasising the current male techie dominance.

    Women into IT is about diversity - different skills and aptitudes. A better balance of soft skills and technology, multi-tasking and singular focus, communication vs. mechanical, people vs. machines.

    Almost all IT is used by ordinary people, yet it is built by technologists. The IT industry repeatedly fails to recognise that IT is a people-serving business and that the soft side of the skillset, at which women generally perform better than men, is not only essential but probably more important than the technical side. People promoting the role of women into IT need to move away from the equality balance and focus on quality improvement - including more women in IT, until a gender balance is achieved, is a simple and effective way of ensuring that the IT delivered is of better quality and more closely meets the needs of its users.

    Steve Burrows FBCS CITP

  • Hi Steve,

    First of all, I think it's AWESOME that you're striving for a balanced, diverse team, which is inclusive of women. So thanks for that, and please keep up the good work.

    But (isn't there always a 'but'?)...

    Having more women in IT actually ~is~ about equality, far more than it is just about making the best possible 'products' we can make.

    There are a whole range of systemic, entrenched structures and systems in place that either actively or passively discourage women from both entering, and continuing in, IT careers. An entire class of people is being discriminated against in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on a daily basis, and it's not actually getting a whole lot better, despite the progress we have made in some areas.

    The fact that you see so few applications from women when you're actively trying to get a balanced team is one of the effects of this. (On a side-note, you might try reaching out to LinuxChix or Systers job-post mailing lists when hiring. LOTS of excellent, highly-skilled women hang out there.)

    But also, PLEASE don't think of a more equitable ratio of women:men as simply a way to bolster the "soft skills" and "multitasking" capabilities of your team. There's nothing that gets the blood boiling of a hard-core, techy, über-geek than to have it assumed that she's all about the 'nurturing' and the 'documentation' and the 'user experience' when she's really into simply kickin' it old-skool, elbow-deep in kernel hacking... :-)

    So yeah, you ROCK for pursuing a more balanced team. Just don't be surprised if the women in the team pwn the guys, rather than 'teaching' them to be less abrasive. :-D

  • You are truly in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. I've been burned a few times by female colleagues when trying to express positive attitudes to woman in the work place. Basically being told they don't need my help, and being a white, heterosexual male I'm basically not allowed to have an opinion.

    So these days I treat woman in the workplace the same way I treat anybody, anywhere - with basic respect and curtsey (unless their behaviour dictates otherwise), and speak against unacceptable behaviour when I see unacceptable behaviour.

    Other than that, I leave the battle to other souls who I've been told are more qualified.

  • B, please keep in mind that this just isn't about "you not getting an opinion." As a heterosexual white male, in most areas of life people are going to take your opinions more easily and with fewer reservations. This struggle is about making the playing field fair.

    I don't know how these women felt when they told you to leave them alone. Maybe they felt you were singling them out, or giving them extra special treatment, but not listening to what they had to say about their own situation. Or maybe they were upset about something totally different. Please remember that as a heterosexual white male, you have the privilege to make assumptions about all women in tech based on only a few experiences. You get to say - "I was burned a few times, so I get to give up now." We don't get to do that.

  • I think it's appalling that there is still a boys club in what would a relatively new sector, i.e. Technology. I actually think women are much better with technology because it requires creativity, initiative and being able to anticipate the next step - aspects professional women hold in abundance.

    Women are more pro-active too, for example I have been doing quite a geeky thing and sharpening my IT management skills by using this virtual training game called IT Manager 3: Unseen Forces. It’s really beneficial and I can compete against other guys on my team to see who the best IT manager is. Obviously I reign supreme.

    http://itmanager3.intel.com/en-gb/default.aspx?iid=ITMG_IgniteSeed_UK_witsend

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