Gender balance in IT: A retrospective

Photo by Carolin Weinkopf

Over the last several weeks, we have published on this blog a series of articles on the topic of gender balance in the workplace, both in general and within the IT world. Each article recounted an interview conducted with a woman who either worked in IT or whose work led her to take an active interest in gender balance.

This article, the final one in this series, is a retrospective. Here we will look back over the series and examine what we’ve learned from the interviews and show what companies (including Endocode!) can do to improve the situation for women in IT.

Motivation

Before we even launched this campaign, certain facts were already clear, chiefly that IT and engineering were traditionally (and for the most part still are) male-dominated. In fact, this imbalance has actually worsened in recent years. For example, in the US in 2006 it was recorded that 28% of people who worked in computer/information sciences were women, down from about 31% ten years previously. We can see a similar picture in education, where just one fifth of all computer science students are female.

Clearly, we’re not just talking about a few percent here; computing has a high imbalance between men and women. Unfortunately it’s also gained a reputation as being quite unwelcoming or outright hostile to women. Horror stories about sexist behaviour in IT companies can only serve to dissuade women from participating and thus reduce the already low numbers.

At Endocode, we were not willing to stick our heads in the sand over this issue. As members of the IT industry in a position to effect change, our board realised it is a duty to address gender issues. That’s why we reached out to several women who are either active in computing or researchers in gender-related topics and asked them for their opinions about the state of the IT industry as well as what Endocode could do to make it a welcoming place for women to work in.

The big ideas

A remarkable thing about all the interviews (which were conducted independently from each other) was how many of the same observations kept coming up. Several of the same issues were identified in every interview.

Perhaps the most significant one raised by every interviewee was that sexist behaviour is rarely a conscious or malicious thing. Rather it comes from several unconscious sources such as cultural expectations, a momentary lack of empathy, or behaviour tolerated only because it has long been rooted in our society.

Our interviewees cited numerous instances. For one thing, they pointed out how men and women are subject to certain expectations regarding their behaviour. In the case of women, they often encounter a subtle expectation to be “feminine”: looking a certain way, being gentle and unassuming, and leaving the work of leadership to their male colleagues. Stepping outside these norms has led them to be on the receiving end of remarks that were hurtful whether or not they were intended to be so. Such remarks betray underlying expectations that women (and men) should behave in certain ways.

But the results of this go beyond hurt feelings; in the context of business there are professional consequences. The types of behaviour seen as “masculine” – being aggressive, forthright and competitive – are just the behavioural types favoured in a business environment. So too is being boastful. A self-congratulatory attitude can increase your chances of being considered talented in addition to (or maybe in spite of) your performance. When a woman in the workplace attempts to emulate these behaviours, she runs the very real risk of being seen as unnatural or bitchy. The same behaviour lauded in a man can be disapproved of in a woman.

Another problem commonly encountered by our interviewees is the expectations concerning their talents. Time and again they have seen jobs being assigned to a man without any question of his capabilities – it is simply assumed he is capable. But tasks given to women are often accompanied with questions. “Do you understand this?” “Are you able to do this?” Women frequently observe that, within a mixed group, the male members are assumed to be the most knowledgeable about technical issues. It’s as though men are automatically assumed to be capable but women must first demonstrate it.

Finally (but perhaps most importantly), our interviewees were at pains to point out that gender issues go both ways and are also part of a larger problem. It goes without saying that gender-specific expectations can be problematic for men too. After all, it’s just as unfair to make assumptions about men or expect them to behave in certain ways simply because of their sex. The larger problem is one of monoculture. Work environments tend to privilege not just certain genders, but also certain personality types, ethnicities and age ranges. Businesses and organisations should be working out how to create a welcoming environment for all different types and how to integrate their diverse viewpoints into the mix.

What are the most important things we learned?

In addition to explanations, our interviewees also offered numerous recommendations for dealing with these problems as well as creating a more diverse and welcoming work culture in the long term. Opinions were numerous, but all women were clear that suffering in silence was not a way to go about it. While there were recommendations not to worry about it too much – just laugh these things off and be herself in spite of them – the majority of responses advocated addressing the issue explicitly.

Addressing it can take one of several forms, depending on the circumstances. For example, Cecilia took the extreme position simply to wear a metaphorical “raincoat” against sexist behaviour (so long as it doesn’t cross a line). Jutta suggested a firmer response might be appropriate, particularly in the face of more aggressive behaviour. Jennifer advocated a more relaxed form for other occasions, like explaining to the person what in their behaviour made you uncomfortable or upset.

There were also suggestions for how to get along in a strongly male environment when you’re a woman. The most pertinent advice is to keep in mind that most sexist behaviour you may encounter will not be conscious or intentionally hurtful. A positive step would be to differentiate much more strongly between professional and personal relationships. According to Jutta, this is related to the stronger tendency among men to distinguish between personal and professional relationships, while the tendency among women is to seek personal relationships with colleagues. It was also suggested that groups of women should network more cooperatively.

This advice makes it sound like women have to adapt themselves to fit into a “man’s world”, but Jutta’s point – surely a controversial one – was a tactical point rather than one about ideals. If, by working within the current environment, women can then ascend to positions of leadership, they will then be in a more powerful position to make their working environments fairer. More gender diversity in leadership will help to validate the points of view of women. Endocode has taken this into account from the start, having as we do an all-female supervisory board.

On the flip side, there is also plenty that people already in leadership positions can do. If the leaders find themselves at the head of a very homogeneous group, they should take steps to minimise unconscious bias in various situations. Even scientists recognise the dangers of unconscious bias and have long been taking steps to weed it out from their studies and experiments – why shouldn’t we take similar precautions too?

Finally, an organisation should provide a way for someone to be able to report more serious behaviour like bullying or harassment. Silke illustrated the importance of this with the example of Julie Ann Horwath at GitHub, demonstrating that even the most successful and prominent organisations may fall short at this.

Putting it into action

There are several actions that Endocode are taking based on what we’ve learned here. Some of them fit very well with Endocode’s existing environment and policies, whereas others take a little more work to integrate. For example, in trying to attract women (and other minority groups) to work at Endocode we have introduced a policy of anonymized job applications. We request that job applications are sent without personal information – like gender, age and ethnicity – which ensures that initial impressions are based only on skills and achievements. This is an action that takes a little more work to integrate because many applicants do not follow this request. In such cases, someone has to “neutralise” the application – removing the personal information – before the application is passed to a potential interview panel.

Being an all-male team at the time of writing this (if you discount the supervisory board) means that we are yet to employ a woman. When that time comes, one of the first things we will do is to make clear to her that we’re mindful of the issues discussed in this series, that we take them absolutely seriously and that they have the weight of the company leadership behind them.

Aside from these reassurances, we will also ensure that the viewpoints of women are encouraged and integrated into the company. Some of the interviewees remarked how the views of women can be ignored, belittled or discouraged in IT companies. At Endocode we already recognise how certain personality types can suffer the same treatment when trying to put their points of view across, and so we actively encourage those people to speak up, engendering a culture of open discussion. This is a practice we will extend to women to ensure they don’t feel outnumbered and trampled.

One of the simplest yet most effective and enriching actions will be simply to make the women in our team feel trusted and respected by not underestimating them. We have learned how the tendency in tech is to view the talents of men and women differently. Now that we’ve recognised this, we will ensure we do not make undue presumptions about the lack of knowledge or talent of women any more or less than their male teammates. Since we have identified and made explicit this tendency, it will be easier to recognise this behaviour in ourselves collectively and advise each other when we are guilty of doing it.

Finally, we are making every effort to be prepared in the event of a problem. When a female employee has a complaint about a fellow team-mate, we can treat it as a conflict (for example, a conflict of values). As discussed in an earlier post, Endocode views conflict as not necessarily an entirely negative thing, but rather as an improvement opportunity. Resolution of conflict is already encouraged to be open, productive and driven by the people involved, and we have guidelines for how to do it. Within this existing policy we will also include gender relations. When a conflict arises and gender is a key issue in it, Endocode will encourage the complaints to be explicative of why the behaviour was a problem, allowing us to learn and grow as an organisation as we resolve the problem. We also have the option to include members of our (all-female) supervisory board in the settling of the dispute.

Conclusion

Through these interviews we have seen that there are real gender-related issues in the IT industry and in wider society to be dealt with. But there’s reason to hope. The problems have been recognised, and recognition is the first significant step towards finding a solution. We’ve also identified many positive steps that can be taken.

We at Endocode will be taking these steps. Will you?

Find all articles in the gender balance series here:

  1. Personal insights: women in IT – with Jennifer Beecher
  2. Just do it! – with Cecilia Palmer
  3. Free Software, Free Society? – with Silke Meyer
  4. What women want – and what they have to learn – with Jutta Wepler
  5. Endocode wants gender balance: How to start? – with Jennifer Beecher


Author: Endocode

Published on 08. Dezember 2014
Original Blogpost: https://endocode.com/blog/2014/12/08/gender-balance-in-it-a-retrospective/

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