Column: Industry gender figures sure to raise hackles

Stop reading NOW! It's that time of year again--time to roll out the platitudes about the position of women in the IT industry. Be dazzled by the fact that little has changed since last year! Be shocked that women in IT are still less common than men and get paid less! Harken to the news that the Internet is still a hostile environment for women!

Stop reading NOW! It's that time of year again--time to roll out the platitudes about the position of women in the IT industry. Be dazzled by the fact that little has changed since last year! Be shocked that women in IT are still less common than men and get paid less! Harken to the news that the Internet is still a hostile environment for women!

This is great! Talk about laid out on a plate! Even a guy could write this stuff! But hold on, what's this?

"The number of women online has long been wildly underestimated, since many women log on to online services through a household account (which is often in their husband's name) or a workplace one. Recent marketing studies of the Internet have put female denizens at around 40%."

Yeah, okay. But that's still 40% women, 60% men, right? And the rest of the news is all bad. Right?

Well.

One problem is that figures are hard to come by for the IT sector in New Zealand. Graham Penn, of Auckland-based IDC Research, told me that IDC locally "doesn't get into the salary issue", and that no one had ever asked for such a survey or been prepared to pay for it. Now there's a little project for the Ministry of Women's Affairs. As far as Penn was aware, no figures were available for Australia either.

However, according to a mail survey by CIO magazine in the US earlier this year, women in information systems there average a salary of US$79,300 while their male counterparts average US$99,900. That is, women earn 79 cents in the dollar compared to men.

The highest paid woman in the survey earned US$315,000. The highest paid man made US$850,000. The woman concerned was more highly educated, older and supervised more staff than the man.

But then things get muddy again. You see, some of these differences can be explained by factors other than discrimination. Indications are that women in IS are on average several years younger than men, so you would expect them, on average, to be paid less. And there are some areas where they are actually paid more than equivalent men. In the US, women working for high-tech manufacturers, communications services and suchlike highly profitable sectors make as much or more than their male counterparts.

In the government sector women in IS earn only 2% less than men (both groups being paid less than in the private sector).

It has been said that women often find information technology itself hostile, with its penchant for masculine-sounding acronyms like RAM, heavy male domination in terms of numbers and online abusive behaviour on the Net.

But it seems the barriers to women entering the industry are erected much earlier in the piece. There simply hasn't been a pool of technologically savvy women to draw from. While in the US women gaining medical degrees has risen from 8% to 38% between 1970 and 1993, the rate of women gaining computer science PhDs has never risen above 17% and lower level qualifications show a similar pattern.

Women (and some men) in IT complain, quite justifiably, about the long hours often expected, saying the reward structure is geared towards people who make stupid mistakes and then spend "heroic" 80-hour weeks putting these right.

On the other hand, and in line with some of those horrible sexist stereotypes, since women have moved on to the Internet, online shopping has taken a big boost and, apparently, women are very quick on the uptake when it comes to email.

More seriously, women according to all surveys, are much more enthusiastic about telecommuting than men. Telecommuting fits in with family concerns and lifestyle considerations that still weigh more heavily on the female half of a relationship. But a note of warning should be sounded here. Could telecommuting lead to a new kind of underpaid woman worker? Could it be the next century's version of piecework? Workers who telecommute are to some inevitable extent taken out of the work social equation--an equation that counts for a lot when it comes to promotions, pay rises and career development.

Certainly large inroads have now been made by women and there are plenty of successful female role models in the industry. Ellen Hancock was earlier this year made chief technology officer at Apple after a career that included time with National Semiconductor and IBM. Locally, of course, we have the example of Sharon Hunter of PC Direct, who entered the NBR Rich List last month.

And, if any cross industry comparisons are made, sexism in the technology sector looks pretty mild compared to some other professions.

It is simply too easy to look at the stats and blame an industry for excluding or discriminating against women, or indeed any other group. The seeds of inequality are sown long before women seek to even enter the IT industry.

None of that should be read, however, as denying that women must be tougher and go the extra mile more often than men to get ahead in IT or any other industry. As one successful woman MIS manager says: "We have more opportunities than ever before. But women still have to rise above the occasion every inch of the way."

(O'Neill is a Computerworld sub-editor. Hate mail can be directed to rob_oneill@idg.com.)

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