I could be a little late to the party, but I caught wind of a blog post, “Booth Babes Don’t Wear Glasses,” circulating in the Twitterverse that prompted me to investigate and I was a bit startled by some of the statements made. I was trying to wrap up my latest chapter on my current book project (the primary reason for my silence this month – that and a 2 week vacation!), so I didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing the blog post other than to tweet my initial reaction that I found it hard to believe. Not the booth babe part. I’ve seen those gals before, but not so much at PASS, or SQL Connections, or TechEd. Or at least I haven’t noticed them if they’re there. Maybe it’s just me…

No, the statement that caught my attention first was “…when I approach male attendees, they seem a bit shocked that I am talking technology with them.” And I thought, really? In this day and age? I mean, it’s 2010, right? If I am reading this post correctly, this quote comes from something that Denise Dubie of NetworkWorld wrote, but I couldn’t locate the article online and the blog post didn’t provide a link.

Conceding that I read the post in a hurry yesterday, I decided that perhaps I’d been too hasty and read something out of context. So I went back and re-read the post again today. The author, Lori MacVittie, appears to be quite a prolific blogger at DevCentral. I don’t know anything about her, but her blog archives are impressive. Clearly, she’s a woman with several years of experience, not someone who just stepped out of college and entered the work world. I’d expect that across those years, she’d have a variety of experiences with all types of men – some who were favorably disposed towards working with women, and some who weren’t, but her post implies a preponderance of those who weren’t. She doesn’t really provide any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, but makes the following observations:

  • Offering an explanation for the failure of women to enter science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), “Young women, according to research [which she fails to cite], aren’t thinking about the difficulties that exist in a traditionally male-dominated field…[it has] everything to do with men and attitudes.”
  • Why do these men have these attitudes? She explains that IT is still young compared to other STEM, it’s dominated by men, and women in general haven’t been out in the work force all that long (less than 40 years,she says). “It’s no surprise that men in general, then, haven’t had a whole lot of time yet to adjust.”
  • “It would likely be difficult to find a woman in technology that hasn’t had this same experience. The shock, the surprise, the change in tone and demeanor that comes from male counterparts upon realizing that the woman they’re talking to knows what she’s talking about.”
  • “The debate over ‘booth babes’ isn’t really about booth babes… It’s about the reaction of men to a technically competent woman, no matter what she’s wearing…It’s about the assumption that no woman is technically competent — at a trade show or on a conference call.”

Wow. Those are some heavy-duty attitudes she’s talking about. And it’s quite possible those are attitudes that she has to contend with. I just haven’t seen anything like it in my career, at least not for a very long time. And even when I did, I would consider the experience an outlier. No, actually – the time I’m thinking about had nothing to do with the man in question going into shock upon learning that I knew what I was talking about. In my situation, he was blatantly discriminating by holding me back from a job he knew I could do in favor of a man and kindly asked me do the work required of that position until he did find a man. In retrospect, it really did work out for the best. I was the one in shock that I actually heard him say – to my face – that he wanted to put a man in that position. But I digress…

I started my IT career in 1984, installing computer systems for tractor dealerships and training the personnel how to do everything with that new computer — running the parts department, managing the service department, selling farm equipment, doing payroll, and keeping the books. As a very young woman in a very male-dominated industry – agriculture – it was quite an experience. I had one good ol’ boy in Kansas refuse to hand over the $250,000 check for his newly installed system because he didn’t think it was right that my company send someone that was still wet behind the years (and female, although he didn’t say it out loud). I just smiled and reminded him that he had a working system and trained personnel, so I thought he got exactly what he paid for. He smiled back and handed me the check.

Other than dealing with the very male client base, I didn’t realize at the time what a novel position I was in from a sociohistoric point of view. The software company that employed me had a lot of women. More than 50% women as I recall. The men there didn’t have an attitude that I recollect. But maybe it’s just me…and a bad memory. Anyway, it just seemed normal to have women in the workplace. It wasn’t until years later when I took a women’s history course that I realized that 1984 was the year that women entered the workplace en masse, in professions other than teachers and nurses and secretaries. I was so busy being in the middle of it that I didn’t notice. And had nothing to compare it to.

If I had no reason to appreciate the novelty of what I was doing in 1984, because I had nothing to compare with the experience, why should men who are younger than me require a period to adjust? That’s the implication in the “Booth Babes” post. We simply need to give men more time. And let me do that math – 2010 – 1984 = 26 years. If any man my age or older can’t adjust in 26 years, well, I’m sorry. I think he’s got other issues, since the world is moving much faster and requiring many more adjustments than having women around. Maybe it’s just me…I might need to develop a more sympathetic outlook towards men who are having such trouble coping with technologically-savvy women. If I can find one.

I guess I’m luckier than women like Lori and Denise who are encountering men with bad attitudes. I am surrounded by a community that is admittedly male-dominated. I no longer work for that software company surrounded by women, and as I get older, I notice there are fewer and fewer women in IT. The facts bear this out if one considers just computer science degrees – only 18% were earned by women in 2008 as compared to 37% in 1985 (National Center for Women & Information Technology).

My daughter graduated from MIT in 2008. Not with a computer science degree, but one in theoretical math. I thought young women weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing? Maybe it’s just me…and my genes. 🙂 She decided that the proper thing to do with a theoretical math degree would be to continue on to grad school, but ultimately decided against that and became a business intelligence consultant like me. (See, I’m doing my part for WIT!)

I asked for her perspective on this notion that men have negative attitudes about women in IT or STEM for that matter. She said that in school she had heard that women in math could have problems with old professors, but she never personally encountered it and never felt disadvantaged, although being female clearly put her in the minority. No, the bigger problem was with other male students, but she chalked that up to their introverted natures. Hmm, could it be the shock and awe that Lori and Denise described was not a negative attitude, but rather the social awkwardness that sometimes characterizes guys who work in IT? Just a thought…

As for her experiences in the work world, my daughter says her biggest obstacle to acceptance has not been gender, but age. She’s still young and has to prove herself. And that’s to be expected.

Maybe it’s just me… Perhaps my worldview of the attitudes towards women in IT is too narrowly focused. Over a 26 year career, I’ve worked in a lot of industries with a lot of different technologies, but I certainly have no idea what’s going on in the IT world at large. My focus has been limited to the Microsoft SQL Server community for the past 10 years. From the way Lori and Denise make it sound out there, I’m rather glad I’m having such a sheltered experience. The SQL Server community has been quite welcoming to women for as long as I’ve been a member. In fact, there is an active effort to get more women involved through a Women in Technology (WIT) special interest group. At every conference I attend, there is always some event devoted to WIT and this year I’ve been invited to participate in the panel discussion at PASS Summit 2010.

Maybe it’s just me… but I think the guys in the SQL Server community are awesome and certainly don’t deserve to be lumped into the same group with others who might have a problem with women in IT. Looking forward to seeing all of you in Seattle in November!