Gender gap: feeling like Snow White?

At my office, a look at the employees’ picture boards and a quick count of my team members — seven males, one female — would confirm what statistics and the IT media are saying: there are fewer women working in IT these days. Why is this happening and does it really matter?

Once upon a time

I am not sure whether the IT field has always been viewed as a geek/male domain, but I do remember an episode about 20 years ago in the data centre where I worked as a programmer analyst — one of an all-female team of about 20, where the managers were male and so was the entire staff overseeing the mainframe. One day the mainframe broke down and our computer engineers couldn’t figure out the problem. Eventually they called the service company, which sent over a female engineer.

Not flustered by the condescending looks from the male engineers, she made the computer tick again in half-an-hour. As she was filling out her papers behind a closed office door, the other engineers quietly exchanged half-admiring, half-embarrassed looks.

If such stories were served to the younger generation of girls with just a fraction of the ardor that goes into pumping their minds full of the latest in fashion and pop culture, the number of females enrolled in IT programs and the proportion of women in the IT workforce would probably not show the steep decline decried by some analysts. There are many female managers now (even at higher levels than first-line), but the overall number and the proportion of women in IT has sharply declined.

For women, the problem is no longer getting through the “glass ceiling” as much as it is getting onto the base of the pyramid. Women in general have more of the soft skills necessary for management positions, but these days the younger female crowd is less inclined to enter a profession they perceive will only require technical skills and will confine them to a computer screen all day.

The mirror is defective

Some experts view the reluctance of young women to enter the field as a problem for the IT sector since, in this age of workforce diversity, the opportunity to draw resources from a whole demographic segment should not be missed. IT professional bodies, employers and educators run educational events for high-school girls aimed at raising their awareness of the IT profession. Some employers organize women’s networking events, offer mentoring opportunities and support all-female IT professional organizations.

But is being a woman in IT really that special? The nature of the work, be it at the base or at the top, really does not require gender-specific attributes.

Who’s the fairest of them all?

Scientists have demonstrated that male and female brains have different wiring and analysts seem to agree that the gender gap problem in IT should be addressed. So it seems risky to conclude that the makeup of its current and future workforce along gender lines — or any other lines — is a non-issue. What really matters is that all people working in IT have the education, skills and social maturity to be able to work on a diverse team.

There is no place there for Snow White, and we must not expect Prince Charming to come by and solve all our technology troubles. Rather, we must count ourselves with the dwarves on the team. In IT, competence has no gender.

Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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