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IT’s gender problem

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13 February 2015

Paul HearnsEquality is a small word with big implications. It is also a concept with which the worlds has struggled in various ways, from race to creed and gender.

Our industry is singled out as being male-dominated and unattractive to women. This is rightly seen as a cause for concern and something that needs to be addressed. But when one thinks of the tech industry, one tends to think of the IT professional, and often the higher ranks are overlooked. Women in executive positions in the tech industry are even more poorly represented than in the professional ranks.

A recent UK survey by O2 found that a quarter of women working in IT believe that the glass ceiling remains. Worse still, nearly two thirds (63%) said that all the decision-makers in their company were men, and more than half felt that there were not enough women in senior positions.

“Even where gender bias is entrenched, people know it is wrong. Hence, when gender bias rears its ugly head, it is often disguised in the form of discrimination based on technical ability, interpersonal issues or managerial capability”

This feeling that not only are women underrepresented and outnumbered in the higher echelons, but that there are actual barriers to their progression is surely having an effect on whether young women actually enter the industry at all.

While these figures come from the UK, I would unfortunately argue that the overall results here would be no better and may in fact be a damn sight worse.

As in the political arena, it has been suggested that perhaps gender quotas are the way forward to bring more women into the industry to combat these perceptions and show that the opportunities are there and, perhaps by example, encourage more women to take the tech options in education and progress right through and into the senior, executive roles.

However, gender quotas are a cause for concern for me. My innate trust of meritocracy makes me worried about a form of discrimination, however positive, that means the best person for the job might not get it.

I would argue that there is another way.

Having worked in the aerospace industry at a time where it was also opening up and trying to encourage women into technical roles, I was privileged to both work with and be trained by highly accomplished and professional women in what was seen as a male dominated industry. Now I will not for a moment say that industry solved all these problems years ago, but the lasting impression it left with me was that the outstanding professionalism of the women involved resulted in it being indistinguishable as to which aspects of the exercise were special programmes and which were merely procedure. It seems that when given the opportunity, the people involved merely relied on their skills and capabilities and all else was immaterial.

It took a while before my younger self was mature enough to make these realisations but it fortunately left me with a positive attitude but even less of an understanding as to why there might be bias, prejudice or any expectation whatsoever that women might not be suitable for technical roles.

Applying this to the tech industry, I would argue that acquiring the technical skills in education is not the central issue and that the special efforts need to be made elsewhere.

In fact, I would argue that it is unhelpful to even say ‘what women need to succeed in X industry is…’ as this is too broad and too general an approach.

If the industry concentrated more on ensuring that women have access from the off to the support services that are needed as individuals, irrespective of gender, that can help them to direct their career, from a skills and a personal development perspective, then that alone would likely solve a lot of the problems.

Even where gender bias is entrenched, people know it is wrong. Hence, when gender bias rears its ugly head, it is often disguised in the form of discrimination based on technical ability, interpersonal issues or managerial capability. If the right support services were in place to ensure that none of these was an issue for each individual, then there is nowhere to hide.

It is unfair and unhelpful to say ‘women are not good at X or Y’. That kind of thinking, even if well meaning, can often re-inforce the very situations that result in gender bias. By ensuring that services are available to help the individual, irrespective of gender, but broad enough to cope with the needs of every individual, many problems would be pre-empted.

The special effort then would be in talking to young women as they go through education to make sure they know that the mechanisms and services are in place to allow them to succeed as individuals, not just as women. By taking advantage of such supports as they progress through the technical side of the industry, those individuals will mature as more rounded, better equipped and more capable people who would no doubt make better executives.

Again, by ensuring that there are no deficiencies through proper supports, there is nowhere for boards, shareholders or anyone else to hide when it comes to selection for the executive roles.

As the leadership of people like Meg Whitman, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, and closer to home, Brona Kernan, Louise Phelan and Cathriona Hallahan unequivocally show, there is nothing to say a woman cannot be a leader in technology or the technology industry.

If the fact of being a woman is not the issue, then the solution to more women in the industry is not to focus on what women need, but what needs to be done to ensure that any individual can fairly consider a career in technology.



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