Stop being snobby about so called "non-technical" women

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As mentioned in my last post, a complaint I hear fairly regularly about female technology entrepreneurs is that they're not really "techies", but that they're writers or marketing experts or consultants, and they can't be included in lists of women succeeding in IT. Despite the fact they make a living from technology, and their businesses are based on and rely on technology, they are not real techies.

I don't agree with this, and think it's symptomatic of the insular, vaguely snobby attitude (that can be associated with technology "geeks") which can put girls and women off the industry in the first place. Irrespective of whether they climbed the ranks of developer or programmer jobs, the fact is these women work in technology. They have brought their skills, experience and ability to the technology industry. They should be applauded, not sneered at.

I do agree that more female technologists are needed, but I don't like the fact that sometimes women are brushed aside because they're on the "lighter" side of tech and they don't know how to write code. If someone runs a successful website and uses the internet to market and advertise her business, to me she works in technology. As technology continues to creep into more aspects of people's lives, the technology industry expands with it, and so too does the definition of someone who works in tech. Trying to deny that makes you sound like a luddite - you're the same as the old-school newspaper hacks who can't cope with the internet and so spend their time bitching about Twitter and feeling superior. New media and internet businesses are springing up and making money fast, and to do well in this sphere you need more than just technology skills.

If more girls are going to join the technology industry we need role models, and these so called "non-technical" women can provide that just as well as female CTOs. It seems a little self-defeating to write off large swathes of the female technology industry because they don't necessarily fit a preconceived idea of what it is to work in IT. The sector needs a change of image, and clinging on to old ideas is not going to achieve that.

23 Comments

  • I heartily disagree with the assumptions that "women are [only] on the lighter side of IT," or that those persons who are on the "lighter" side of IT are discounted based on gender. Granted, chauvinism is very real, even today. But don't ignore the fact that many male entrepreneurs aren't considered "techies," either, "Despite the fact they make a living from technology, and their businesses are based on and rely on technology, they are not real techies."
    I think that part of the perceived bias against women that one may encounter in this regard is due to the ballooning nature of the IT industry. For example, one might assume that an IT professional has specialized knowledge about computers or computing; however, that line between common knowledge and IT-specific knowledge has blurred at an incredible rate.
    The definition of IT that I gather from this article is sharply distinct from my own, yet no less vaguely defined; IT is such an overused word that it loses its meaning. However, let me attempt to define it:
    Being an IT professional is having skills and knowledge about computers, computer systems, or computer networks, that is not widely-known; after all, no one gets hired for common knowledge.
    Having a website is no longer IT. It has hit mainstream. Using IT for your business no longer means your business is IT. Every business uses IT, and if yours does not, it is out of business. Qualifying for an entry level IT position becomes harder every year, as more of the field disseminates into the surrounding culture and becomes commonplace.
    I do not think that writers, marketing experts, or consultants, for example, should be considered IT professionals because they use IT products or services; who doesn't use these? However, I also do not think that any hype surrounding the IT industry in particular should be allowed to diminish the importance of other fields, or disqualify women in those fields from being considered successful or inspiring, even as those fields come to rely on IT--after all, IT companies need marketers, writers, and consultants as much as any other company needs IT.
    Let writers inspire budding writers--perhaps even by their extensive use of technology, and let web designers inspire the next breed of their kind--perhaps with their eloquent Cascading Style-Sheets.

  • "Having a website is no longer IT"

    On the surface of it, that sounds right, but if, as suggested in the post, you run a successful website and successfully market and develop it online, then you are a digital marketer and digital entrepreneur. You can't do it without having a proper grasp of the technologies involved.

    If it's entirely taking place in the digital sphere, is it really not IT? I appreciate the boundaries break down as you look at individual jobs - is a copywriter who specialises in online writing an IT professional? Probably not. But where do those women who do use and understand technology across several disciplines to run a business online fit in if they're not just one of those things (not just a copywriter, not just a marketer, not just a consultant etc) and not allowed into the general IT club?

    Is 'digital' or 'online' its own not-exactly-IT world?

    It's an interesting question.

  • As one of those marketing consultants who uses technology daily, let me throw in my 2 cents. I recently rankled up at a conference when we were all thrown in the "technology" pot.

    Today, everyone should be a "technology expert," inasmuch as they can use Twitter, Facebook, blogs and websites easily. And if everyone is an expert and "in technology," what differentiates us from one another?

    My husband worked in IT for 10 years. He understands C++ and Java, which are another language to me. That I consider technology, not marketing.

  • I don't mean any marketing professional who uses websites or social media *must* be classified as working in tech. I just think that the definition of a "technology professional" should be a little more fluid, to reflect the fact that the technology world itself is changing. Within reason, it's up to the individual to classify themselves.

  • I don't make the assumption that women are only on the lighter side of technology. I was talking about women who are specifically affected by this snobbery - that doesn't mean to say they all are.

    And none of what I wrote discounts the possibility that this could happen to men too. I focused on women because we are trying to boost the number of women in tech, and yet at the same time ignoring some of them who are already there because they aren't pure technologists.

    The IT profession isn't really old enough to have specific definitions of what an IT professional is, even if you discounted the debate around the internet. I wouldn't be qualified to attempt such a definition, but I do think that the type of people I'm talking about contribute to and operate in the technology industry, and they should be recognised as a result.

  • Rebecca, you have hit the nail on the head. This snobbery is something I've felt at times, and I think I'm probably a good example of the kind of person you're talking about when you're talking about non-coding IT professionals.

    I'm a social media consultant and journalist. I don't code. But I understand social media better than most. I've spent eight years learning how it works and I've bothered to go beyond the obvious and delve into the psychology as well as observing behaviours. I would wager that I know more about how social media can be used in business than most CIOs and CTOs, and I could tell most social start-ups a thing or two about how to plan their social functionality.

    Does this mean I'm not an IT professional? My entire career is based on a deep understanding of a particular type of technology, not from the coding perspective but from the user/behaviour perspective. Am I less of a technologist because my Ruby and my Python are non-existent?

    And by the way, aoeui, a lot of people do not use IT, do not know how to create a website, do not want or need to have the IT skills you take for granted. And believe it or not, some businesses actually can thrive without a website. Strange, but true. You should be wary of extending your own experience and assumptions to the rest of the world.

  • Amen!

    I'm a (female) user experience designer. I can't code to save my life. But my programming colleagues can't draw a wireframe to save theirs.

    Designing a great service and building a great service are not the same thing. They're interdependent, but not the same.

    I've worked on permissions systems, wireframing, metadata, search... That stuff is technical, but it *isn't* code.

    There's more to technology than coding - I wish I had more colleagues, of both genders, who knew that.

  • I'm not sure it's helpful to say that anyone can call themselves a "techie" or an "IT professional". There's a lot of work going on to try and professionalise the IT field right now, with things like CITP and university degree accreditation, and an explicit move away from the situation where anyone can call themselves an expert.

    I'd say that "Techies" build, design and analyse software and systems (so user interface design is absolutely techy; project management is techy; human computer interaction research is techy; as well as all that hardcore coding stuff). To wheel out a tired analogy - the people in the car factories are techies - designing, constructing, painting... The mechanics are techies. But the expert rally drivers and the skilled salespeople aren't. They understand the technology, but they're not building or maintaining it.

    So in my view a lot of what counts as social media consultancy isn't technical, it's social. Digital marketing is marketing done in a digital sphere, and the technology in both of these cases is simply being used as a tool. Don't get me wrong - a deep understanding of the psychology and perception of social media is very hard to get, and is a worthwhile thing - but it's not technical.

  • No, I'm sorry, if you're a marketing person, you work in Marketing, not Technology, regardless of the industry you work in. That's not snobbery, that's a fact. I'm a female coder in the publishing industry. If I succeed, it won't be because I know anything about "Publishing", it's because I'm good at "Technology".

    Saying you have to include non-technologist women as technologists because women need role models implies that there aren't any women setting technologist role models, and I find that downright offensive.

    Women in technology do need role models, and those role models should be in technology, not in some-field-related-to-technology-because-we-could-not-be-arsed-to-find-women-technologists.

    Not all technologists are coders, obviously, and some marketing people are very good at technology, but I'm completely fed up of events for "Women in Technology" being all about pink laptops and internet entrepreneurship. It's completely reinforces the stereotype that women are uninterested in how any of the stuff works.

    It's deeply discouraging to women like me who actually code, which I believe is the opposite to what people are trying to achieve.

  • What about the user-experience people, or people like Suw who know more about a particular technology than a programmer would? It's easy to pick out someone who works in marketing, and I'm not arguing that a marketeer who's good at social media should immediately be labeled as a "woman in technology". But there are plenty of people who don't fit neatly into these boxes and who do want to be included in the technology field.

    Incidentally, there *are* some purely technical female role models - I didn't argue there are none. Sue Black is one and Sarah Blow is another just off the top of my head. My point is there aren't enough, and while we're trying to encourage girls into technology it helps to show the range of technology-related careers potentially available to them. It also helps to utilise the experience and knowledge of people who do know about careers in tech, whether or not they code or have a computer science degree. These people should not be written off, and using them as role models also does not mean we-could-not-be-arsed-to-find-women-technologists. I'm talking about highlighting and appreciating both types of people, not replacing one with the other.

  • Rebecca, thanks for blogging this. There are some very interesting perspectives here. I'm an IT professional: Technical (Microsoft Exchange messaging, Infrastrucutre Architecture etc. etc.) who doesn't code (I'm an IT Pro, not a developer) but who knows system components right down to the registry. So now that I've "crossed over" and deliver social media consultancy projects, I've experienced this snobbery first hand from people who don't expect me to know anything about 'proper' technology.

    As Hannah says, Social Media is all about the social side of software - something that females instinctively identify with, connecting, communicating and reaching out beyond their immediate network. It's a skill - just like Infrastructure technology, UI development, C++ coding or systems troubleshooting is a skill. It can be learned just like other skills and should not be denigrated by people who think it's somehow less important than more hardcore tech skills.

    This snobbery, like all stereotypes - is there to be broken - and I look forward to altering perception much more often :-)
    twitter.com/eileenb

  • I'm a female IT Project Manager. I deal with software, website and infrastructure implementations and can dive down into the lowest level of detail at any point. Although I can't code particularly well, I can read and understand code and know my way about a command line interface. However, I'm constantly asked by my clients to 'bring someone technical' along with me to meetings. These audiences tend to be entirely male dominated and although it's never said out loud, I know that they believe I can't hold my own in technical discussions because I have lady-parts.

    It drives me nuts, especially when I have a better grasp of their requirements that the developer does!

    Thanks for writing about this - I'd also like to see more women accepted as "technical", regardless of their breasts, heels or skirts.

  • I started working in IT in the eighties, and the prejudice that you see in the Dilbert cartoons was very visible: the people who write software, the ones who tell the computers what to do, think they are the most important people. The reality, then as now, is quite different. Commercial IT, in big organisations, public sector or private, is not about technical or scientific innovation. It's about using IT to improve communications, information handling, and to support business processes.

    I go drinking with a guy who ran a skunkworks for DEC in the seventies. He has bragging rghts, cos he did things like build a colour monitor - when there were no colour monitors. But I also remember a woman programmer called Pam in the eighties, saying "most business programming is 'multiply quantity by price and add VAT'"

    Another woman, Joan, used to taunt the sexist men, saying "this is women's work, it's typing - if you want to do man's job, go down a coalmine".

    IT in business is mostly about information, communication, analysis, understanding, logic, specification of requirements, design, testing, training, and negotiation. Somewhere in the middle of it, there's geeks doing heavy duty geek stuff, but they are only a part of the team.

  • I am confronted with this snobbery once in a while, because trained as a lawyer, I have set up an internet company in 2001 and went through the whole building websites, developing software, building databases, being the first with user generated content etc. but never became a coder... It would be great if more women would work as coder/technology developer/scientist etc. because it will influence the type of products/companies etc that are made. But it takes time. In the meantime: how will women be able to influence the technological developments?
    In the building industry, there were also not a lot of women, but the builders knew they needed these women for advice on how to build the best and most useful house. So there they asked the association of stay at home women to advice them. It worked very well.
    In technology I think we should also start an association of women advisers on tech, who can be consulted upon by coders, scientists etc. in order to have a balanced gender influence on technology developments.

  • It's quite simple: if the person were a man, would you still count the role as "technical"? Obviously there a plenty of boy geeks who don't code, and women in similar roles obviously count.

    However, including people who aren't interested in the actual tech JUST because they are women, on the assumption that women need role models, however poor those role models are, is patronising to the extreme.

  • Being a "techie" has, as many other commentators said, nothing to do with your gender it is simply a label based on the type of job you do and the fact that you possess certain qualities and abilities, i.e. you're a geek, coder, developer of some kind who not only uses the technology but understands it's workings to a large degree.

    That is all the label is for. The majority of "techies" are men. You can argue that this is not balanced or it's "wrong" in some way, and you can even try and launch into a huge debate about whether women can do the same jobs (they can) but that doesn't change the numbers.

    Again, as others have already pointed out, trying to apply a label to a group of women for whom it doesn't apply, just shows how little supporters of this move understand what it means to be a "techie". It just comes across as a rather pathetic attempt to gain some kudos without having the skills.

    All of this seems particularly odd when being a successful business woman (or man) should, in itself, carry a high degree of respect. Being an entrepreneur is something that requires skill, ability, and drive and anyone that can make a success of a business should be applauded.

    What is a bad thing is trying to claim a title for yourself that you don't deserve nor have earned, it's a sure fire way to annoy those that have it already ... the sort of people who have access to all your IT systems and your website and whose fingers might just slip next time they are doing something particularly complex ... you have been warned ;-)

  • I'm not trying to say whether a role is technical or non-technical - I'm saying the ones that are considered "non-technical" need to be considered as part of the wider tech industry, and appreciated just as much as the coders are. They play an important role in the tech industry just the same as CIOs, programmers, coders, engineers etc do.

    And calling someone a "poor role model" just because they're not technical is far more patronising than anything I've argued. I think you may have missed my point

  • Thanks a lot for all comments, it's very interesting to hear arguments on both sides....just to clarify, i'm not trying to say what jobs should be labeled technical, and which shouldn't, or claim a techie title for anyone who wants to be called a techie. Being a coder obviously requires more technical knowledge than some internet entrepreneurs have, and no matter how many women join the ranks of social media or entrepreneurial-ism the technical roles (plus project managers, CIOs etc) will always be a crucial and separate part of the industry. My point was really to try and show why the 'less-technical' jobs are important too, why they should be considered as part of the wider technology industry, and why they should be counted as "women in technology" as a result. I agree completely with Gordon Rae's point that describes the IT industry as a team, with the technical roles being part of that. I don't mean to try and reduce the importance of technical women, but to boost the importance of the other roles mentioned. I think the latter can be done without it being at the expense of the former. I also think that some of the newer skills don't really get the respect they deserve, as Eileen says, and that they really should be better recognised.

  • I may have missed your point. I guess the big question I have is, if your point is about widening the definition of what consitutes the tech industry, why are you making this a "Women in Technology" argument at all? If the flaw is in how we define "tech", then what does it specifically have to do with women?

  • you are right that it probably affects both men and women, my reason for focusing on women is because "women in technology" is what i write about. Also, for me the argument is more important in relation to women because there are very few of them in tech. So to me, it makes sense to highlight and celebrate all women who work in the industry, not just those who are deeply technical. I've sometimes been told "so-and-so isn't a woman in tech because she isn't a techie" and to me this seems counter-productive. We want to highlight all women who are succeeding in tech, because that's what will encourage more girls to choose to study it and eventually help to address the lack of gender balance. My point was that, actually, the women who set up web-based businesses or who know loads about how to use social networks to increase profits are just as able to encourage girls into technology as those who run IT departments or build databases. The snobbishness no doubt extends to men too, but the above is my reason for focusing on women.

  • In my recent experience, there is often some confusion caused by the term "tech" or "techie" being used to refer to:

    People who work within the technology industry (a very broad field encompassing lots of different roles)

    Technologists (those who have deep technical knowledge, whether it be systems architects, network designer, sysadmins, devs, hardware peeps etc)

    I *think* Rebecca is using the first definition for this article and the people who are in strong disagreement are using the second.

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