International Women’s Day: older than you think

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With a century of history, there's hope that it might come to a quiet end

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8 March 2019 | 0

Did you know that the roots of International Women’s Day (IWD) stretch back more than 100 years? It can be hard to appreciate that this is not a new(ish) thing when a lot of what you see concerning IWD is accompanied by #IWD2019 or #InternationalWomensDay. The earliest National Woman’s Day, organised by the Socialist Party of America, was held on 28 February 1909 in New York and International Women’s Day was marked for the first time on 19 March 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

No wonder that the culture which grew up around IT was so male dominated and that it was one that was unappealing to so many women. Little surprise then that, in large part, most of the jobs held in the IT industry by women were in areas such as marketing and PR, administration and HR.

Women’s Day was made a national holiday in Russia after the October revolution in 1917 although, women will be unsurprised to hear, it was still a working day until 1965. The UN only started celebrating International Women’s Day in 1975 and it wasn’t until 1977 that it invited member states to proclaim 8 March as the UN day for women’s rights and world peace (although it didn’t specify whether the quest for both had to be completed at the same time or if women’s rights could be achieved first).

Anyway, the point of this very brief history lesson is to highlight that having a day to mark the campaign for equal rights for women and equal recognition is nothing new, even if it’s nowhere near as old as discrimination and prejudice against women.

It is customary at this point to note the strides and advances that businesses, organisations, industries, governments and countries are taking towards making the objective of international women’s day a reality. We are often provided with examples of women who have done well in their chosen walk of life and risen to a top position in a particular industry or organisation.

That’s great, but it says something about any industry, including IT, that the faces of the small number of women in leadership positions are so familiar compared to the massed ranks of clone-like male leaders. Sometimes, it’s implied that the reason for their under-representation is because women don’t have an aptitude or attraction to a specific industry or profession. But I can’t help feeling that those same arguments were deployed in years gone by when there were few, if any, female doctors, lawyers, accountants or even police officers.

How many careers are there where people presumptively assume that men don’t have an aptitude for the task? You might say primary school teaching because there are so few male primary teachers, but that overlooks the fact that it’s not so long ago that all teachers were male. Today, you have people saying that women don’t have a natural interest in IT, that they wouldn’t be attracted to programming or coding or any of that other technical stuff. But is that really true?

How many men are naturally drawn to those tasks? Not me. I never wanted to be a coder or programmer. I bet there are a few men doing those jobs who weren’t that interested in them in the first place either. But how come no one talks about men who aren’t drawn to IT as some kind of drawback that needs to be overcome to allow us to become more deeply engaged in it?

Probably because it never used to matter. If a man didn’t really want to become involved in IT that didn’t mean people wrote him off as someone who would never work in it. No one presumed that men needed to find it attractive even if, once they got into the industry, most of them realised that it was pretty good. For them. Why? Because in the early days, the IT industry was colonised by men. They got there first and they created an environment that suited them. Let’s not forget that quite a few of the people who helped kickstart the IT industry as we know it today, including the PC, weren’t especially technically qualified. Technical expertise, or lack of it, wasn’t a barrier to entry. For the most part, it boiled down to some men designing stuff and other men selling it.

No wonder that the culture which grew up around IT was so male dominated and that it was one that was unappealing to so many women. Little surprise then that, in large part, most of the jobs held in the IT industry by women were in areas such as marketing and PR, administration and HR.

It’s fair to say that a significant number of men in the industry were quite happy with that arrangement. Some of them probably still are. But if there’s one thing we know from looking around some of the older professions, it’s that things have to change. We only have to hope that working in an industry that so frequently boasts about how fast moving and rapidly evolving it is, the change will come much sooner rather than later.

Roll on the day when there’s no international women’s day at all because its objectives will have been achieved and every day will be women’s day just like, in so many ways, every day is men’s day today.

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