“How about women?” my correspondent asked.

Her question was in response to last week’s re-run, in which I said, “While discrimination based on race and ethnicity still happens (and is inexcusable) far more comes from distrusting people with different thought patterns than skin color.”

My response was an eloquent “Uh …”

Google “gender gap in IT” (or, self-referentially, “gender gap at Google”) and you’ll find plenty to chew on. This is current events, not a historical debate. If you work in IT, look around you. I suspect you’ll find fewer than 50% of your professional colleagues are women.

We can debate causes. As is true of so many effects, I suspect this one stems from multivariate causation.

Here’s one cause I’ve never seen discussed. I have no studies to back it up, just my own experience watching male colleagues and hearing them talking in unguarded moments, some mediated by one conversational lubricant or another.

What it is: For one reason or another, many males who landed in technical professions experienced high school as the place other guys got dates. Perhaps they chose a technical career path out of self-defense. Possibly social awkwardness is correlated with an engineering mindset. One way or another I think it’s fair to say that many male technical professionals aren’t entirely comfortable interacting with women on any level, not just a professional one.

I don’t mean this as a stereotype. Stereotypes are worse than wrong. They’re misleading.

What I’m talking about is a correlation. Statistical tendencies have statistical effects, which is what we’re dealing with here.

And as long as I’m digging myself a hole, I might as well make it deeper. Again, based on my unscientific information gathering there are two separate issues in play, not one: (1) The male technical folks I’m talking about are intimidated by interactions with attractive women, in particular when they feel an attraction and have absolutely no idea what to do about it; and (2) being egalitarian by instinct they feel guilty about not being attracted to female colleagues who they find less than pretty; that being the case they find these interactions intimidating as well.

Which leaves a very narrow range of female attractiveness these technical professionals don’t find intimidating.

Attractive women working in environments populated to significant extents by engineers who fit the above description will experience male colleagues who avoid them. Unattractive women working in environments populated by these self-same engineers will also experience male colleagues who avoid them.

Which makes for what appears to be a workplace that’s hostile to women. And sometimes it actually is hostile. Men don’t like to feel intimidated any more than women do; for many men introspection isn’t a popular pastime; as a result, when they feel intimidated they blame the person they’re intimidated by.

Leading to feelings of hostility.

What to do about this?

If you’re a manager there’s a limit to what you can do. You can coach any employee whose behavior crosses the line separating creation of discomfort from outright hostility. You must involve HR if anyone’s behavior crosses the next line. You personally should treat female and male colleagues as if they are all genderless, on the grounds that their gender has no bearing on their abilities.

If you’re a female technical professional, you have no professional obligation to put up with any of this. And yet, dealing with it effectively is, in most circumstances, a better career move than challenging it.

The secret is to convert yourself from a personal appearance to a person. You do this by approaching various male colleagues who seem to be avoiding you, starting a conversation about a professional topic — ideally one in which your colleague can offer you some help. As the source of the problem is that the colleague in question doesn’t know how to talk to you, you solve the problem for him by providing a topic.

And if you’re one of the offending males? First (please forgive me for being direct about this) pay attention to where your eyeballs are pointing. Look your female colleagues in the eye — about 40% of the time when you’re talking; 80% when you’re listening; off to the side the rest of the time.

Second, accept this as a fact: None of your female colleagues are having romantic thoughts about you. The odds are long they never will; longer if you avoid contact.

There remains that small coterie who “think” women have less aptitude for technical fields than men, often based on clap-trappy evolutionary pseudo-theories. If you’re one of them: I studied evolution at the graduate level for several years. Your theory?

It’s wrong.

Here’s another version of this week’s ManagementSpeak:

“We are effectively a technology and marketing business that just so happens to be in the insurance space. It’s an important mindset to drive. When a consumer comes to our website, they don’t compare us to GEICO, Progressive or The Hartford. They compare us to Amazon, Zappos and Expedia in terms of their experience.”

– Kevin Kerridge, head of direct, Hiscox USA

Well, when you put it like that …

When you put it like that you’re still wrong, not because consumers aren’t comparing your website to Amazon, Zappos, and Expedia (they are) but because Amazon’s, Zappos’, and Expedia’s customers aren’t paying attention to the technology.

They’re paying attention to the experience.

And even that’s wrong, because if they’re paying attention to the experience you’re either delivering it through VR goggles and the novelty hasn’t worn off; you run a cruise line, theme park, or some other business where the experience is what customers are paying for; or they’re having an experience bad enough to notice.

But for your average business that’s just trying to make an honest buck, the whole shopping and buying experience should be close to subliminal — as natural as the sales associate at a clothing retailer asking, when you’ve chosen a suit, whether you also need shirts or a belt.

Very little of this belongs to IT. My own inclination is to place every customer touchpoint under Marketing’s purview, or, if that isn’t possible, under its influence.

But just because IT doesn’t own customer experience design, that doesn’t mean IT is free and clear. Quite the contrary, IT has everything to do with making sure customers enjoy (that is, can ignore) the best experience possible when interacting with your business no matter which interaction channel is involved. Here’s a terribly incomplete checklist of what IT should bring to the customer-experience potluck:

Fundamentals

In any for-profit business, underneath all the complexity are customers, the products and services customers buy, and transactions through which customers buy products and services. IT had better provide solid support for these customer experience fundamentals:

  • CRM: Customer is semantically slippery. It includes the buyer, who makes or influences the decision to buy your products, consumers, who use them, and wallets, who pay for them; also there are both individual customers and composite entities they’re part of like households and business departments. CRM systems have customer data models designed to accommodate the complexity so you know who you’re talking with and in what capacity.
  • Product Information Management System (PIMS): Customers want to understand your products. Sure, general-purpose content management systems can handle product content, but why make life harder than it has to be? If your company sells a lot of SKUs and a PIMS isn’t part of your application portfolio, fix that.
  • Voice: Sure, digital stuff is fun and glitzy. But call centers and interactive voice response (IVR) are customer touchpoints too. Ignore them and the results are predictable and aren’t pretty.

Running with the pack

  • Analytics: Marketing needs a place to put its data and tools for analyzing it once it’s there. Not news. Not quite fundamental yet, but close: Companies that lack it are at a disadvantage more than companies that have it have an advantage.
  • Social media monitoring: Mining falls under analytics. But looking for individual messages that badmouth your company so you can respond in near-real time, before the message spreads too far? Not analytics, very important.
  • Customer Service monitoring: This should be a fundamental, except for how few companies do it. It’s low-tech, too. Your company’s customer service representatives know everything that’s wrong with every aspect of the customer experience, because Customer Service is where customers go to complain. Someone should listen to these folks, don’t you think?

Getting ahead … for now, at least

  • Chatbots: Sure, sure, right now chatbots are prone to smartphone spellcheck-caliber gaffes. But they’re going to be a big deal everywhere companies provide level-one support at scale for customers having problems, and not only to save a few bucks.
  • Less is more: Customer touchpoints aren’t for when a customer is lonely and wants company. They’re for when customers want to: Research a product; buy it; complain about it; return it, or complain about a different touchpoint. They want as few interactions as possible. Get rid of the ones that are annoyances if you possibly can.

I know there are more IT-driven get-ahead customer experience opportunities. I just can’t think of any right now.

How about you?