Maybe It’s Just Me… A Perspective from One Woman in IT

July 29, 2010

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!

24 Responses to “Maybe It’s Just Me… A Perspective from One Woman in IT”

  1. Great post, Stacia! I think your perspective on this topic is insightful, and ultimately quite optimistic. It’s positive to hear that, in general, you haven’t felt marginalized or profoundly discriminated against within such a male-dominated field. I’d be curious if your vantage is consistent with other women in the SQL Server community… and if so, kudos to us ;) If not, it could be that your worldview and self-confident approach to your work and interactions has perpetuated greater acceptance by the men you work with, by virtue of you refusing to believe any issue could be so dichotomized. We can’t rule out the possibility that you’re able to more quickly overcome gender discrimination because you’re just awesome to work with :) I think it’s a topic that warrants further consideration and appreciate the post… hope to see other women in IT respond. Thanks!

  2. Great post Stacia! I’m glad the SQL Community makes everyone feel at home regardless of age, sex, gender, etc. I’ve only been in the field a short time (little over 5 now) but this community continues to astound me with how awesome everyone is.

  3. Well said Stacia! As a consultant working with dev teams in many different environments, I rarely see that ‘old school’ attitude from men. And I have learned that it is very valuable to have women on projects -so much so that I help clients seek out appropriate candidates (internal and external.) From the dev team perspective as well as the SQL team perspective, I only see support for competence -not gender.

  4. Arnie – That’s encouraging to hear. As I was researching statistics for WIT, I came across some interesting information about what women bring to the dev team. I hadn’t really thought about the benefits of gender being measurable (which perked up my BI antennae), but somebody appears to be studying the issue. I’ll be taking a closer look at those studies to assess the methodology and conclusions as I prepare for my participation in the WIT panel at the PASS Summit.

  5. Jorge – I can’t agree more! It truly is a community that embrace newcomers and continues to evolve in its capacity to support one another. I don’t know if there’s anything else like it out there, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t plan to go anywhere else. :)

  6. Thanks, Jason – you’re too kind. :) In this case, though, I truly hope it’s not just me and suspect it’s not. I know many of the women in the SQL Server community, but not as many as I’d like to! I’ve never heard anyone complain about some injustice perpetuated by men. Maybe it’s because they’re not complainers, but I think the issue just doesn’t occur commonly in our corner of the industry. I could be wrong. By way of comparison, a truly awful experience is one my mother told me. She was among the first women in IT, working for Boeing at the time. Boeing hired out its programmers as contractors and she was sent out on a project as the only female member of a team. The team had to sit together for lunch, but the men refused to speak to her. (I assume they spoke when they were actually working on the project.) Now that’s a bad attitude, but that was 40 years ago. Times have thankfully changed!

  7. Jason said “If not, it could be that your worldview and self-confident approach to your work and interactions has perpetuated greater acceptance by the men you work with, by virtue of you refusing to believe any issue could be so dichotomized.”

    And I want to mention that I think this is an important point. One of the things I noticed was that, for women in engineering at MIT, they wore it as a badge of pride. They weren’t just an engineer, they were a WOMAN engineer. And they banded together. And that banding together necessarily creates outsiders, in this case, the men. In effect, they ‘protest too much’, and unwittingly push themselves farther from achieving equality.

    Though I am woman in science, even I felt outside this group. I was in classes where I was perhaps one of two, maybe three woman. Once I was the only woman left in the class by finals. But, I was not the only minority. There were kids from all over the world, kids who followed along with the French teacher lecturing in English in their Chinese textbooks. All that mattered was the work. If you did well, you were respected. If not…well, we all understood your struggle since we had all struggled ourselves. And since we were all so busy focusing on the work, well we had no time to consider demographic issues. Besides (again, as mathematicians), we’d all recognize that our sample size was far, far too small to draw any reasonable conclusions. :)

  8. Great, thoughtful, insightful post Stacia. I’ll offer a couple of thoughts re: the SQL community side. The efforts to promote WIT in PASS have gotten a lot of support from the leadership and membership, but that didn’t happen right away. It took people some time to see the value of having the WIT events. And while I agree that blatant discrimination is not on display I have had a couple of experiences where a male colleague (in the SQL world) has expressed surprise to hear a woman participate in a technical discussion in a knowledgeable way.

  9. Great post Stacia,

    Something that stood out for me is that I think you really hit the nail on the head with the following:

    “…but rather the social awkwardness that sometimes characterizes guys who work in IT?”

    A lot of us are really just shy. It’s probably from spending all that time in our parents’ basements, but that’s a whole other stereotype. :)

  10. you are not just: A Perspective from One Woman in IT

    I am very late in the party, I enjoy it :)

  11. Stacia,

    Great article and I’m glad our SQL Server community is supportive of all people regardless of their sex, color, etc. In my previous work experience in the military at first women in technology were looked upon as a curiosity but as more of them joined it became a normal experience to work beside them. It is not the color, sex, etc of a person but the work they do. If the person does good work, hire them, no matter who they are.

  12. As a father with an Engineering degree, I truly hope that attitude will accept woman in STEM fields. I would openly welcome any women who can hold their own, but with that said, I think part of the problem are the efforts to bring women into STEM fields.

    For awhile in college (2001-2006), I tutored women in STEM fields in Math as part of a program to support women who did choose to go into those fields. Not a single woman stayed in a STEM field, so I started asking why they were majoring in a STEM field and most told me it was a way to get a scholarship for three years or so which limits how much debt they were graduating with.

    The other thing I saw were girls majoring in CIS but which didn’t really have an interest in CIS. Part of that was still part of the last bubble where they thought they could make a lot of money in CIS, but they made fun of the fact that I read tech news, tech blogs, and tutorials. They thought it was stupid that with all the college work I still programmed for fun (I find it relaxing to code without a deadline, just as I find playing musical instruments relaxing). When faced with attitudes like that, sure I hold them in a position where I would prefer people with different attitudes.

    After joining the work force, most of the girls I met really thought of it as a 9-5 job. When I’m working nights to redo the network or getting called in at 4am (some of this while I was a single dad), its really annoying to have people punch the clock when there are still fires to be put out. Especially when the most I get is a thank you (no extra pay or raises) it really leads to an atmosphere where they aren’t pulling their own weight and thus I’d prefer other people to them.

    Do I attribute any of this to the fact they are women? Absolutely not. But if I am listing the traits I want in a co-worker I haven’t yet a woman yet who has as many of them as the male co-workers I have. Again, when meeting a female co-worker I treat her the exact same and I’m confident there are some women out there who would make excellent co-workers. I have a few women co-workers like the graphic artists, the director, etc whom i GREATLY appreciate; I just haven’t had any female IT co-workers like that yet.

  13. I have been in IT since 1985 and have never encountered the attitudes from the booth babe post. I actually was a booth babe at one of the launches and no one seemed shocked that I could talk tech. lol In most companies woman are a tech minority but I never attributed it to culture or opportunity. The dicussion is foreign to me. I have always had opportunities because of my skillset not because of (or in spite of) my gender. You are not the only one. Perhaps the boot babe blogger is the only one!

  14. Jason says “A lot of us are really just shy. It’s probably from spending all that time in our parents’ basements, but that’s a whole other stereotype.”

    I’m typing this as a 55-year old, working out of my parents’ basement! (Helping Dad through Parkinson’s Disease)

    However, I’ve often found female coworkers in the industry much easier to deal with – I wish that there were more of them!

  15. After working as a secretary for 5 years, I decided to go back to school in 1979. Originally, my intent was to major in engineering. But after exposure to computers (1981), I switched majors. I’m still in the same job that gave me that exposure — a fusion research project. Talk about male-dominated: all physicists are male and nearly all scientists and engineers are male. But my computer group has been between 25 – 50% female during my time with them.

    I can’t really say that I have encountered that kind of stereotypical male bias against women. They wanted 2 years of experience/schooling when I applied for the position, but I had only 1.5 years. Yet, I was hired. I was assigned database work in 1999, and have done nothing but database (SQL Server / ASP / ASP.NET) since 2000. I have attended DevConnections conference for the last 6 years. No such encounters there, either. But then, I’m not a highly social person and generally keep to myself (that’s my very introverted nature showing itself). On the other hand, if the kind of attitude referred to in the blog post that sparked this conversation were as pervasive as the blogger seemed to think, I should have still encountered it somewhere.

  16. Hi Kathy – thanks for the comment. Great story about switching careers. Sounds like you’ve been involved with SQL Servers long as me. So if we agree there’s not a problem with men in our field, why isn’t the industry doing a better job of bringing young women in?

  17. Hi Tony – We’ll blame Jason for stereotyping about basements. ;) I’m sure your dad is glad to have you there! And I’m glad to hear you’ve had a positive experience with females. I’m wondering how to get more of them into the field!

  18. Thanks, Susan – I’m really glad to know it’s NOT just me! I’m hearing from many women who echo the same sentiments that you have.

  19. Thanks for your perspective, William. I’m one of those who’d be right there with you working round the clock, so I hear you loud and clear. I also know quite a few guys who marked their 8 hours in the office and didn’t give a bit more time without complaining. It is odd to me to hear about girls in CIS who weren’t interested in technology. Obviously it’s one of the most fascinating fields to be in! ;) The unfortunate thing I find about our society is the pressure put on kids to decide what they want to be when they grow up (or pick a career) by having to choose a major when they’re 18-21. It seems to be that should be a time to explore what one’s interests are, without having to make a commitment. I always assumed I would do something in the tech field – both of my parents were programmers back in the day when most folks didn’t know what that was. Couple that with growing up in the space industry and a fascination with science fiction literature, I just know I’d do something with computers – I just had no idea where it would land me because it didn’t exist when I was 18-21. At that time, I thought I’d be an accountant and so I dutifully took my accounting classes. It wound up serving me well in the long run, but my point is that it’s a shame that we force education on young people without giving them a chance to try a few things in life first. Meanwhile, I hope you do get a chance to work with some females in IT. We just have to rustle some more up!

  20. Thanks, Dave. I remember a time when women in the military – period – were a curiosity, let alone women in technology. I can imagine different organizational dynamics in play in the military that would slow down the rate of acceptance as compared to non-military organizations. But that’s just supposition on my part. I’d love to hear from women in the military provide some perspective.

  21. Hey there Stacia – OK, I started to write a long comment but ultimately I turned it into a small blog post. I hope it brings about a couple of new readers as I think this is such an important topic.

    Here’s my post:

    Cheers to you!

  22. Maybe it’s just me but I experienced quite a bit of those attitudes when I graduated in 1978. I was also VERY young – graduated college at 19- and barely 100 lbs so I looked about 16. Now I experience very little of that as a woman but as a Hispanic woman I have often been in meetings where the only other Hispanic women in the building are cleaning the floors. Often people who have appointments with me think I am the secretary and offer to wait until Dr. De Mars returns. With rare exceptions, once I start talking they are quite happy to be discussing what needs to be done to solve their tech problems. I DO very very rarely run into someone who thinks a Latina grandmother could not possibly be doing my job.

    I see subtle racism as a big problem. People who are Hispanic, black, Native American who are very competent are passed over unless they are outstanding . I also see those employees getting less mentoring – I could go on but maybe I’ll write a blog post on it !

  23. [...] increasing the numbers of women in technology. The numbers are diminishing at a deplorable rate (as I discussed in a previous post). It seems to me that to foster change we need to start laying the groundwork with our children. By [...]

  24. [...] The post to read is here: [...]

Leave a Reply