Ruminations on Women in IT

When I was in college, at the University of California, Davis, I lived in the International Relations building (D Building in the Tercero dorm area, for any other UCD alum out there), and got my first real glimpse of the feminist movement up front. It seemed like it was filled with militant, angry members of the female half of the species, who insisted that their gender was spelled "womyn", so that it wasn't somehow derived from "man" (wo-man, wo-men, get it?), who blamed most of the world's problems on the fact that men were running the show, and that therefore, because of my own gender, I was to share equally in the blame for its ills.

Maybe I was--Lord knows I certainly wasn't an entirely nice guy back then (and some will chirp from the back of the theater, "back then?!?")--but it still left the whole "feminist" thing as something I couldn't really be around, much less support.

My sister, it turned out, had a different experience at University of California, Santa Cruz, and became one.

Needless to say, this made family get-togethers somewhat awkward.

Then, a few years later, she asked my help in purchasing a new computer for herself. Basically, she just wanted me along to help explain any of the technical terms that she wasn't entirely familiar with, and to give her some advice on whether they were important to her needs. Not an unreasonable request, and not something I wouldn't do for anybody else, male or female alike. (I sometimes wish my father would ask my help before buying, but that's another story.)

We went to the store, and I got my first lesson in sexual discrimination.

The entire time we were in the store, despite the fact that it was my sister asking the questions, despite the fact that I only answered questions that she asked of me directly (in other words, I was there to help her, not to help the sales guy sell to her), almost the entire conversation was spent with the sales guy talking to me, even if he was answering her question. His body language was unquestionably that of, "She's clearly not capable of making this decision herself", and addressed everything to me, despite her repeated attempts to catch his eye and have him talk to her, the actual purchaser with the question.

I was a bit taken aback. I don't think the sales guy even noticed. That bothered me more than anything.

Ever since that time, I've been curiously and cautiously trying to figure out why there aren't more women in IT.

Several theories have presented themselves over the years:

  1. Women, aside from a statistical minority, are structurally incapable of mastering IT. This is the "math is hard" argument, and I think we can all pretty much agree where this one belongs.
  2. Women are encouraged/forced down an educational path that leads them away from IT until much later in life. I've heard this from a couple of women my age, and while I think there may be some validity to it, at least back in the day, I don't know if there still is. I'd love to get some feedback from recent high school or college grads who can weigh in with some anecdotal evidence one way or the other.
  3. Women are entering IT, but not in the areas that I hang out in. This is definitely possible, and I think is happening, to some degree. At an Adobe "Flex Camp" last night (I was Chet Haase's roadie for the evening), I noticed a far more even split of gender than I'd ever seen at a Java or .NET user group, and when I mentioned this to one of the other speakers, he nodded and said that women were far more prevalent in the "web design" space, which is clearly not a space I play much in. I've also heard that the system admin space is much more "female-friendly", too.
  4. Women get in to IT, then out of it or stay "hidden" in it. I've heard the theory that some women choose to get out of IT because they're not willing to put the same kind of time and energy into it as some men are, or they choose to remain at the software developer level instead of trying to advance the corporate ladder into management or other more visible positions.
  5. There are exactly the number of women in IT that want to be there. Hey, let's face it, maybe women just don't like software development, and that's OK, because there's a lot of jobs I don't like, either.

My concern is with theories 1 and 2. There should be no reason whatsoever that a woman cannot succeed every bit as much as a man can. This is one of those (few?) industries where the principal qualifications are entirely intellectual/mental, and that means there's absolutely no reason why one gender should be favored over another. (Nursing and teaching are others, for example.)

So, without further ado, those of you who are interested, check out Dana Coffey's link on the Lego Build event at the MSDN events coming up.