If you’re female and you’re in the IT business, you may want to stop reading this column right now; you might not want to know how depressingly slowly the condescending and sometimes blatantly-sexist attitudes of some of the men you work with are changing.

Gentlemen (and in too many cases, that descriptor isn’t even close), this column is about far too many of us and our unacceptable behaviour in dealing with half of the people in our society. For those who genuinely treat our female colleagues with the respect and equal treatment they deserve, hats off and an apology for generalizing. For those of us who don’t, the question of the moment is: what the hell are we thinking? And if we aren’t changing our thinking, how long before we’re gone?

Early in my IT career (we’re talkin’ the late 80s here, I’m not that old), I worked in an organization where the executive offices were on the top floor of the building, the carpet on their floor was many times deeper than anywhere else in the building, the walls on their floor were paneled expensively, and “guests” on their floor (including lowly employees like me) were served tea or coffee in fairly decent china.

The worst thing of all was the tea or coffee was served by one of a group of young women who were still then known as “secretaries.” They were all of a type, these women, one for each vice-president, each as objectively attractive but unobtrusive as the next.

I was more than a little uncomfortable with this arrangement. By this time I’d already had a very competent female boss, a female colleague I worked closely with and couldn’t stand (I took this as a good sign of liberated thinking – I disliked her as much as any guy I ever worked with), had taken classes where 50 per cent of the population was female, and where a good portion of them had kicked my ass in exams.

Further, the woman who was my mentor in coding Cobol against DB2 at that point was the smartest programmer I’d ever met, male or female.

So I thought that I could and should and would get my own coffee, thank you very much, and found the assumption that these women were there to “Take care of me” disquieting. (God help me, one of the execs referred to them in front of me as “the young ladies,” as in “Are the young ladies taking good care of you?”) If the behaviour of the execs was not offensive, it certainly was condescending.

I probably didn’t think about these dinosaurs and their attitudes as much as I should have over the next few years; maybe I just assumed that they’d die away as we raced towards a technological nirvana that levelled the playing field.

Good stuff was coming: e-commerce and disintermediation, the death of the old-boys network, a new process where the best deals and the best performance and the best people rose to the top as useless old-style intermediary relationships fell by the wayside.

On the Internet, as the joke goes, no one knows you’re a dog. What’s commendable and not at all funny is that no one knows if you’re of colour, or gay, or handicapped, or female either- and God bless it for that.

As we enter the new millennium, I’d kind of hoped that the old attitudes would die away, but guys, I’ve got to say it, we’ve got a long way to go and many of us owe half of the population around us a huge apology.

Since the new year turned, I’ve heard professional women referred to as “Missy” and “Little gal” – this was in Texas mind you, but still pretty pathetic.

More dangerously, I’ve been asked “What does she look like?” before I’ve been asked “How good is she at managing projects?”

I’ve seen print adds that ostensibly promote hardware, software and services with women posing in scanty or suggestive clothing. The pictures are fine in the right context, but what the hell do they have to do with IT?

This kind of ad is disturbing if not unexpected from businesses that sell diesel engines or auto parts, but I’d have expected better than that from those of us leading the way into the new digital age.

Gentlemen, I have daughters, and so do many of you. Do we treat the women we work with in the same way that we’d want our daughters treated? If we’re OK with our personal behaviour, what about other guys we work with? Do we speak up when they say something blatantly sexist?

If not, what are we thinking?

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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