Bye-bye, boys' club? Why the new IT may be a woman's world

A lot of hand-wringing over female participation in tech may be moot as the nature of tech changes

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Why women have avoided the tech industry

Maybe women aren't avoiding tech because they think they're not good enough; rather, they may see teach as a poor fit for them. Women today have choices, and there are better options for many of them than joining a tech culture whose characteristics rub many women the wrong way. They're using their talents elsewhere.

There are several possible reasons that women would recognize tech as an unappealing profession for them.

It's a boy's club, with a large proportion of outcast boys
These men's societal development seems arrested at age 13, they dress and smell like bums, they obsess over game-playing (both literally and in Silicon Valley's casino economy), and they live to work in artificial constructs rather than engage in the wider world. Let's face it, a large portion of the tech industry -- especially in the startup portion -- bears more than a striking resemblance to "Lord of the Flies." Those who fit the stereotype are a minority in most organzations, but they're a visible minority. They're portrayed sympathetically in TV shows like the "Big Bang Theory" and "Freaks and Geeks" and unsympathetically in books "Accidental Empires" and "Hatching Twitter," but in both cases the portrayal is offputting to many women.

The proportion of such "outcast boys" varies from sector to sector, and it seems most concentrated in Silicon Valley tech startups, while it is much rarer in government agencies. Lorrie Sheets, an IT manager for behavioral health at the County of San Mateo in California, has worked mostly in government IT but took a foray into a "well-funded" private Silicon Valley firm in 2004. "The language used, jokes made, and other comments would never be tolerated where I am now."

"Some folks will never grow up, and the tech field breeds that sort of an environment, particularly below the management and leads level," notes Sandra, a technology manager at a Tribune Co. division who asked me to withhold her full name, title, and division so as not to upset her colleagues. "As females, I think we take it with a 'no harm, no foul attitude,' but it does not make the field attractive to females."

But she admits that the stereotype of the help desk and development "nerds" -- where they're provided junk food and games, and allowed "way too casual dress" -- is "attractive to men because it presents a laid-back, casual 'play at work' environment, in which these males would do it all day even with long hours." That's free labor many employers love, of course, but it turns off women who typically have more outside interests and are expected to handle family needs more than men.

The guys don't have to be outcast boys to create a distinctive boy's club -- different facets of IT appeal to them more than women, which sets the context for the work, notes Sheets. "Before we hired a CIO, most of the conversations we had within the health department were about cross-departmental projects like enterprise master person index and data sharing. Since I got a new manager who is a man and since we hired a new CIO who is a man, the focus has shifted to more talk about hardware and networks. I think of those areas as more male. I want hardware to work and not to spend a lot of time on it -- not so true for the men I know."

"Why is tech so male-dominated?" asks Sheets rhetorically. "Because it's fun. Because it has hardware that does cool stuff and is updated a lot, and there's lots of problem-solving. Lots of competition -- good-natured and no so good-natured -- within the industry."

Tech work often has little external value
Men and women are different from each other (which doesn't mean they shouldn't be treated equally, of course). One key difference, speaking generally, is that women place greater value than men on work that helps other people, and they are more attracted to work where the results clearly benefit other people.

By contrast, men place greater value on work that rewards themselves directly, such as solving a challenge or performing a task better than before. Much of what technologists do in their day-to-day work is the latter.

Tech is perceived as a gung-ho, hacking culture
Another facet of women is that they tend to be detail-oriented and more programmatic in their problem-solving thinking than men. Leaping before you look, throwing things against a wall to see what sticks, just trying something to see what happens -- that mentality is more comfortable for the typical man than the typical woman. That reality may give men an edge in startups, where both the probem and the solution aren't at all clear -- and make women look elsewhere for work.

Tech often doesn't value "soft skills"
Most people will recognize this issue: Assertive men are go-getters, assertive women are bitches. And women's propensity to consider emotions and feelings -- those empathetic "soft skills" -- is often treated as time-wasting diversions from getting stuff done. Women tend to be more empathetic than men and pay more attention to the affects on people -- not just on the results as previoulsy mentioned, but on the process itself.

This is a big issue for Michele Chubirka, a security professional who recently blogged on the issue. She tells me it pains her to see "the devaluation of soft skills. Or the assumption that because I spend some time writing, talking, and speaking about soft skills, I'm not as good technically as a man. No, it just means I think soft skills and emotional intelligence are as important as technical skills."

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