Renovating the glass ceiling

"Look like a lady, act like a man and work like a dog." That's the career women's checklist for success, jokes Tauranga District Council IS manager Robyn Dines. Cliches aside, IT has become less of a male-only environment, but how much so?

“Look like a lady, act like a man and work like a dog.” That's the career women’s checklist for success, jokes Tauranga District Council IS manager Robyn Dines.

Cliches containing more than a hint of truth aside, IT has become less of a male-only environment, but how much so?

Official figures are hard to come by, though Carole Lee Davidson, director of Women in Technology and technology director at Oracle NZ, says women comprise a tenth of the IT workforce globally. The Wellington-based Unlimited Potential group of Young IT members registered a 28% female response rate to a membership survey. High-profile women like Theresa Gattung and Rosemary Howard head our biggest telcos.

Yet we are reminded of the recent past by stories like that of Wellington City Council CIO Alma Hong, who attempted to introduce herself at an IT industry function not so long ago only to be taken as a waitress (see Woman's work running capital's IT).

Those at the coalface seem to suggest that the reasons for the relative imbalance are both historical and something of a gender preference.

Women IT managers say while the number of females in the IT and telecomms industries remain low, it's becoming less of a boy’s club, especially in the public sector where equal opportunity ethics seem strongest. They also suggest female IT staffers tend to congregate in more personal contact roles like management, while the men opt for more technical roles.

“Women’s minds, personalities and interests lie in working with people rather than problem solving,” believes Alison Fleming, information and facilities manager at the Department of Internal Affairs.

“Women do seem to have personal traits in dealing with the big issues and people issues better than some men and men have higher interest in technical things,” adds Dines.

However, Fleming and Sheetal Manchanda of Unlimited Potential say the education system still tends to push males and females in certain areas. Manchanda, a teaching fellow at Victoria University in Wellington, notes that when she studied at Massey University her technical professors tended to be male, while the women taught "softer" subjects like management, suggesting that such role models are bound to have influence on career choices.

IT Association head Jim O'Neill says there should be more women in senior IT roles. While he says there is “nothing stacked against women that we know of", he admits a need for role models and says “we need to show kids at an early age that women can look to IT as a career".

But when they get there, what do they find? "To get to the top, you have to be mobile,” O’Neill admits. This is less attractive to women and “more men do have an international gypsy life".

Manchanda says working hours in IT tend to be longer, which can be a negative for women with families.

On the plus side, Fleming and Dines say they have not encountered any barriers to their success and say when recruiting they are more concerned about skills and personalities, not gender.

“We do not need to be over-precious, as there’s no barrier. I personally came across no obstacles,” says Fleming.

Dines agrees: “I think everybody is equal. I do not see myself as being any different from anybody else.”

Auckland Regional Council’s Tony Darby says his organisation’s equal opportunity policies would stamp out anything potentially discriminatory.

“For us it is an issue well past its use-by date. People are people. It’s not a gender thing,” Darby says.

Dine also doubts a need for groups like Women in Technology.

“I do not feel I have to group around women to get strength or support. Men do not feel they have to do it, so why should women?"

However, everyone Computerworld spoke to agrees that anything that prevents the IT sector from getting the best possible staff should be a concern, whether this be ageism, sexism or whatever.

“Companies can miss out on skills," says O’Neill. Women may provide give a different perspective, he says. "Companies without women are limiting their capabilities. Discouraging women means less people to choose from."

The issue goes wider, says Manchanda. “The more representative IT is of the population, the more the industry is able to respond to changing environments and economic situations.”

And clearly there is a need for networking groups such as Women in Technology. It claims 300 members, and received 70 further enquiries after the Alma Hong article in Computerworld last month. (And yes, men can join.)

WIT director Davidson agrees sexism was a stronger issue in the past, but the industry still needs to attract people of a higher calibre.

IT is not seen as sexy, but rather geeky, whereas we should all “try and educate that IT is a pretty dynamic field”, Davidson says.

IT managers should be concerned about upskilling staff and Women in Technology is “trying to do our bit”, with courses and the like. “It’s not about being politically correct, it’s not about politics, it’s about being the best," she says.

“If we don’t develop the IT professionals, we are doing ourselves an injustice. It is not about men versus women. It is about improving the nature of our society. It is about excellence and increasing the pool of IT talent,” Davidson says.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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