A conversation in an online forum during the Women in Tech session at the Large Installation System Administration (LISA) 2011 conference in Boston this week may have summed up the reason for ongoing sexism in IT shops.
User 1: “Are you going to the Women in Tech session?”
User 2: “No, I am not a woman.”
When this was read out loud to the mostly female audience Wednesday there was a collective groan. Why? By that point in the conversation, many women had agreed that often men make things uncomfortable for women in the workplace and don’t even realize it’s an issue.
But almost every woman in the workshop had a war story to share. One had been told she couldn’t be a sys admin because she was too physically weak to carry equipment. Another feared lashback for taking maternity leave. One mentioned the all time standard – cat calls on the job. Wow.
It was suggested that IT shop sexism may be inherent to “IT engineer culture.” Engineers, after all, are known for their snark, need to outsmart each other, and what one woman dubbed “pub humor.”
Turning that snark toward women may just be par for the course and shouldn’t be taken personally, another suggested.
The problem with accepting this as part of the “culture” is that it implies women have to learn to live with it – that men don’t have to change. But that didn’t sit well with most in the room.
“If we decide one of our organizational goals is to have more women and more diversity, but we want to be jerks, those are two irreconsible goals,” said one panelist. Another added, “Pub humor should stay in the pub.”
The bottom line is that organizations must take specific steps to stem sexism in IT in order to diversify the workplace. They’ve got to do that by changing the way they talk to and about women. They must create meeting space that is conducive to equal sharing. And most importantly, they’ve got to offering mentoring to women, if for nothing else to increase the dismally low number of women in IT organizations.
By the end of the session, panelist Máirín Duffy of Red Hat had whipped up 11 ways to make the IT organization a friendlier place for women (posted on the Sanguine Neurastheniac blog).