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Friday Philosophy – Sex in The Office December 4, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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Sex in the office. It’s a bad idea – you can get hurt falling off the swivel chair or desk and there is the ever present danger of the stapler…

Though accurate, the title is of course misleading to make you look at this blog. I’ve actually been thinking about the ratio of women to men in the office, the impact it has and the efforts put in to address it. If you have somehow missed it there is something called “WIT” – Women in Technology – and it is part of an ongoing drive to get more women into the traditionally male-dominated careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics {STEM} and to help them stay there once they are in the industry. I can’t say I’ve been aware of this next aspect until the last couple of years but apparently a women is more likely to move out of IT as they get older than a man is.

There is a morning meeting on WIT at the UKOUG Tech15 conference on Tuesday at 8pm (details here) and it is open to men as well as women. I hope to be there as it is a topic I am interested in and support. However, I have to say I have some ambivalence towards it too. Why? Because at some of these meetings you get a bit of “men-bashing” and also things get suggested which are positive discrimination – and I am not a fan of discrimination, even when you put the word “positive” in front of it.

I work in the UK and I’ve worked in IT now for 25 years. The ratio of women to men in technical roles does not seem to have changed much in most of that time and has stayed at around 10% to 20%, depending on the business area. My first job was in the national health service and the percentage of women was about 20%. I’ve also been in teams where there is not a single woman. I much prefer there to be a higher percentage of women where I work than 10% – and this is not for any creepie “they are more pretty” or similar reasons, it is because when it is all or mostly men, the atmosphere is like a never-ending boy’s locker room. Juvenile humour, constant swearing and biological jokes are good fun for a while, but not day in, day out. Rightly or wrongly, when the sex ratio is more balanced, so is the humour and behaviour. I’m told women are just as bad when they are in a male-free environment – but I would not really know, would I?

I think over the last 5-10 years there has been some movement though, I think we are finally moving towards a more balanced ratio. Actually, no , it would be more accurate to say we are progressing to a less unbalanced ratio.

There is no question about the technical ability of women and I am confident in my own attitude towards having women in technical roles – I’ve hired, promoted, supported and reprimanded enough women over the years to demonstrate I don’t have any issues there. But I don’t think we will ever have equal numbers of men and women across the technical roles in IT.

Why do I think this? Because it is about numbers, percentages and factors. I have to quickly point out that I am not talking about individuals here and there are individual exceptions to everything I say, but I do run the risk of upsetting people…

One factor is the Autistic spectrum. Or maybe I should be saying Aspergers, as that term was supposed to indicate people with reduced empathy but not reduced cognition (intelligence or learning speed). I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, the fact that when you look at people working in IT there is a tendency towards us being poor at understanding people, uncomfortable dealing with other humans and being happier working with things. ie somewhere in the mild end of the  Autistic spectrum. Obviously this is not true of everyone in IT and probably is only relevant to, ohhh, 83% of us {Joke! It is probably less than 50%}. It is certainly true of me and a few of my best friends, ironically. Technology particularly appeals to those of us who are on that spectrum, especially when we are younger, as it is easier for us to deal with something other than people. It is also true that you are less likely to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum if you are a woman than a man. Add those two together and over a large enough sample, like the working population, you will see a significant effect. Men as a population are more autistic, IT appeals to the autistic, you will get a bias towards men in IT. It does not mean all men in IT are autistic.

Another factor is of course that when children come along it is nearly always the woman who takes the lead in childcare. It does not have to be that way, it certainly should not be expected let alone forced. I’ve known couples where the father stops work and takes the main parental role (and they always run up against a lot of sexism about that, so it’s a two-way street ladies!) but it is still relatively rare. And taking time off work has an impact on career development and skills because you are not doing the job during that time. I know that when I have not done something for a year or two my skills degrade (I did not do much PL/SQL development work for a couple of years and I was rusty as heck when I went back to it properly). What is wrong is the tendency for that pause in development to be continued when people come back to work or work part time. We can help address that by making more effort to support people (women and men) coming back to work to continue onwards from where they left off, not be expected to stay still. But, over the whole industry, taking a break to concentrate on family is going to have an impact on not only the raw numbers of women in IT at any time but also career progression relative to age. Again, I stress this is not about individuals, it is about ratios and percentages.

Another aspect is that if you have a break from what you do as a career, it is an opportunity to ask yourself if you still want to do it. If you don’t have a break you are less likely to question your job and more likely to just keep turning up and doing it. Some women drop out of IT due to sexism – but some drop out as they just decide to try other things. On average men are less likely to have such a break and just trudge on, week-after-week, year-after-year.

There are other factors beyond those three but the point I am making is that I don’t think the ratio between women and men in technical roles will ever be 50:50. I would prefer it to be 50:50 but I don’t think it will be. I am also not arguing in any way about being complacent about sexism at work, not promoting women or anything like that. The fact that I don’t think we will ever have parity of numbers does not condone sexism in any way. Everyone should have the same chances and support. I’d like there to be no need for positive discrimination as we don’t have any discrimination – it is all about the individual and ability. As my friend Pete Scott put it on twitter when this post first went up – Humans In Technology is where we want to be – HIT

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Comments»

1. Rachel - December 4, 2015

As a woman who left IT as she got older (I was 51 when I opted out), my reasons weren’t due to childcare or a break in my work experience. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to do so so that I could begin training for another, more satisfying field. I left at a time when there were lay-offs in the company I worked for, so walking out was easy. I don’t know if I would have done so if I didn’t have that incentive.

But… I think the problem starts earlier. Girls are not encouraged to learn about, let alone work in, science and technology. There is actually a series of commercials here now in the US that address that very issue. If we don’t encourage girls to learn about science, why would we expect them as women to enter the field?

mwidlake - December 4, 2015

Thank you for your comment Rachel.

I agree with you, there are many issues behind why women are under-represented in STEM jobs and I am heartened to see some of this being rectified. How we educate our children is a main one. I think I was lucky as a child in that I had three female science teachers I remember and my form tutor was also a woman teaching science (though she never taught me). My best science teacher was a woman. I did not really think of there being an issue of sexism in science until I got to college and started to see a discrepancy – and then entered the workforce and was dismayed at the lack of balance. I never realised how badly the general school system back then could fail girls who had an interest in science as my school was an exception.

My piece is not really addressing what is wrong for women in STEM jobs, it is more about the fact I think there will always be a bias in numbers and that bias is not due to any lack of ability by women or opportunity afforded by the currently male-dominated sector. I think there will be at best a 40:60 split. But a lot needs to change to GET to that 40:60 split.

As an aside for other readers, Rachel is a heroine of mine. I owe her a big Thank You. Back in 2003 or 2004 I was at the UKOUG conference and a little lost in the crowd, even though I was presenting. Rachel took me and another newbie (a women who herself became significant in the UKOUG community) under her wing and looked after us. Rachel then went and left the Oracle world and I would have been miffed – only she moved on to work with animals and, heck, I was a little jealous. I prefer things with fur, wings or scales to naked apes.

2. Rachel - December 4, 2015

And now you make me blush. One of the best things about the change in direction for me was the fact that when I “restored” something from a crash, I was now saving a life as opposed to saving a sales transaction.

If we get to a 40:60 split I will be amazed. And grateful. But we have to change attitudes (both male and female) to get there. Thanks for this piece, it needs to be highlighted

3. Lisa Reed - December 4, 2015

So many valid points Martin – well done on a very good article. This is a subject that will, and should, drive discussion, thought and direction for the future.
There is not a silver bullet to be found here, there are many reasons why women either drop out of STEM careers or never get into them in the first place and we need to be able to address each issue separately.
I do love the concept of Humans In Technology and I think it will take humans of all sexes, races and abilities to work together to get us there.
There are a lot of women out there that are strong advocates of women achieving in their field and we need to get behind them and champion their goals.
I do like your use of the word significant – but there is more to be done and I’m rising to a challenge. 🙂

From personal experience alone, ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is the massive hurdle to be overcome.

mwidlake - December 5, 2015

“Impostor Syndrome”. I need to know more about that.

Rachel - December 5, 2015

Feeling like a fraud. As if you are an imposter who is only faking their knowledge. And yes, I have felt that

mwidlake - December 5, 2015

In that case, is that not just human nature for most of us who share skills? I don’t belong on the Oaktable and how in hell did I get ACE Director? And yet, those who crow their skills from the roof tops are the people I am thankful are NOT in those clubs. And when I talk to my friends in the same or similar clubs, many of us feel the same. It is a whole other Friday Philosophy but I do not feel this is a female thing. It is something else shared by … those who strive?

Rachel - December 5, 2015

imposter syndrome is not a female thing, it’s a human thing. It seems to be prevalent among those who actually do have skills, intelligence and knowledge, as if they think that no matter what they know, it’s not enough.

Definitely another Friday Philospohy topic. Lots of articles and research on it 🙂

4. Noons - December 5, 2015

Interesting post. There seems to be of late a lot of this kind, here and in other places.
I wonder why? A few things come to mind.
“Forcing” a particular career segment to be a 50:50 sex split is a sure fire way of achieving nothing.
The problem needs to be addressed outside of IT – before folks even think of joining this career. And it’s a LOT more pervasive than just IT.
I’m always reminded of the extreme statements against my own career and professionalism when in 1998 I took the conscious decision of putting my company on hold and dedicating my time to help my wife raise our two kids.
Even if that meant I’d not be part of the itinerant band that calls itself the “Oracle community” and I’d not be “famous”.
The negativity towards me in some of those sectors since then, has been amazing.
Fact remains: my kids know who I am and I thoroughly enjoyed participating and helping their growth to adults.
And I couldn’t care less what that “community” thinks or does!
I only wish more women – and men! – had the courage to face life as parents and took the same path. It might bring true balance to life in IT.
It might also make some hot heads pipe down and think of themselves and the sorry state of their own family before pointing fingers at others Ah well, I’m sure I’m just a “bad dba”, of course…

5. Julius - December 6, 2015

Although I completely agree with many things you said in the post, I don’t really see how you arrived at the final argument of “don’t think the ratio between women and men in technical roles will ever be 50:50”. You mean never ever? Then you either believe in some biological differences in men and women (which I don’t think you do) who predetermine this kind of balance or you simply think that human race will never be smart enough to get there. To get there by means of educating children in the same way no matter what their sex is and by “educating” I mean every aspect of this word like the child’s very first toys (which are usually very much more technology related for boys than for girls) and even smaller details which build up to why you think (and you are probably right in the context of nowadays society) that “you are less likely to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum if you are a woman than a man”. I think there are more autistic spectrum boys not because of any biological differences but simply because of the differences in the way we are raised from the very first days of our lives.

Anyway, I completely agree with what you and Rachel said in the comments – “a lot needs to change to GET to that 40:60 split”. It won’t be easy and I agree that positive discrimination is definitely not the way to go but I am a believer that one day (which I am sure I won’t see) we will achieve this equality. And I don’t mean the balance in IT only. But everywhere else too. Because you can’t achieve this only in IT or STEM without achieving this in every other role in our society too.

Thanks for the well-chosen topic for your Friday Philosophy. And sorry if my English is hard to understand – I am not used to writing in English.

Cheers!

mwidlake - December 11, 2015

Sorry to be so slow to acknowledge your comment.

I really do think it unlikely that we will hit 50:50, at least in our lifetimes, for the reasons I stated and a few more. However, the bias in our society and particularly in our educational system are things we should alter and, if we do, I think we would be closer to 40:60. Men and women treated as a group are subtly different biologically (well, anatomically we are quite different! but I mean biochemically) and psychologically. However, as individual men and women we have are specific abilities and it would be great if we were all treated based on those rather than on cultural norms.

I suppose I am arguing that there are some biological norms that in turn will influence cultural norms, but we should stop being limited by them.


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