“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.

It’s re-run time again in KJR-land. I had a higher priority this weekend than writing a new column – we celebrated my wife’s birthday. I’m sure you’ll understand.

And anyway, the re-run, which ran in May of 1998, is just as timely and relevant now as when I first published it in InfoWorld.

– Bob

A few columns ago I mentioned a science fiction story titled “The Political Engineer” and asked if anyone remembered the authors. Patrick Berry remembered reading it in an anthology of stories by Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl titled Critical Mass.

Thanks, Patrick.

Lots of IS Survivalists expressed their appreciation for that column. Many see themselves as apolitical engineers treated poorly by politicized corporate cultures. So here’s a question: What are you going to do about it?

You have three choices: leave, learn enough about corporate politics to avoid being victimized, or suffer. Pick one.

The problem my correspondents described — nontechnical managers making technical decisions without involving the engineers — has nothing to do with politics, though. Not the good kind (figuring out how to move forward when legitimately different points of view collide) nor the bad (back-stabbing and hidden agendas).

While it may seem to be politics, the problem is our natural tendency, as human beings, to trust and associate with those most like us. It’s a lack of appreciation for diversity.

Think of the executive ranks of your company. Can you think of anyone who’s there without any visible achievements that seem to warrant it? Think about the fast-trackers who aren’t executives, but who obviously will be. What is it about them that makes them fast-trackers? Ability? Maybe.

In many businesses there’s a sort of executive club. Some people belong to it. Others don’t. Its members can spot each other from a distance and say, “Yes, he’s one of us.” Nonmembers mistakenly call it the old boys’ network, but it’s nothing of the kind. It’s a club and you’re either a member or you’re not.

It’s depressingly like a high school clique, where you know who’s in it and you know you’re not. I suspect sociologists have written oodles of research papers on this subject (if not, it’s fertile soil for some Ph.D. candidate) but we don’t need research papers. We need a manual. Nobody has ever written a step-by-step instruction manual for joining the clique. (Memo to IDG Books: Publish Joining Cliques for Dummies.)

That’s why so much of today’s diversity training is completely ineffectual. 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. As a friend put it, lots of companies hire and promote people of all races, creeds and backgrounds, as long as they think alike. Real diversity comes from differing points of view, perspectives, priorities, and values. Valuing real diversity is the antithesis of being part of the clique.

Did I say “the clique”? I meant “a clique,” because there’s more than one. Techies have cliques, too. So do most other identifiable groups. If you’re part of a clique, you probably don’t even recognize it. That changes nothing.

How well do you look at the world from the other person’s perspective when the other person doesn’t think the way you do? Do you try to see the world through her eyes, or do you take the easy way out, applying a convenient label that trivializes or demonizes a perspective that makes you uncomfortable?

“Aw, that’s just politics!” means, “You didn’t make this decision the way I would have,” just as much as “They’re just techies — they don’t think the way we do” does.

It’s time for all of us to appreciate real diversity — and that means listening to those least like ourselves, discovering how it is they perceive the world.

After all, listening to members of your own groups is a whole lot like listening to yourself.

How much will you learn doing that?