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A tale of two genders

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“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.

Comments (18)

  • That’s definitely part of it, but how did such people take over tech in the first place? When I started in “data processing” as they called it then (1979), I worked at a bank. The programming department was easily 1/3 women, so I didn’t feel out of place. The “systems programmers” as they were called then were upstairs, I never saw them, and (from what I heard) were all male. Fast forward to when PCs came out and the “systems programmers” seemed to have taken over. If you didn’t have a computer science degree and couldn’t program in C, you didn’t count. If you knew Cobol and were female, you were called a “Cobol bimbo”. So, at least part of it, I’ll blame on the computer scientists who became prominent with PCs.

    • The change you describe is explained by “Uncle” Bob Martin in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecIWPzGEbFc (very long), where he describes the history and future of programming.

      tl;dw: At the beginning of programming, there were few computers and programmers were drawn from the primary process, which included women. Due to the technological limitations in that era, iterations were time consuming and it payed off to code meticulously. That’s something women were (and presumably are) pretty good at. As the number of computers grew exponentially, the number of required programmers grew as well, which led to a change, whereby programmers were less drawn from employees in the primary process and more from students, graduating from newly introduced computer science educations. Those are, as we know, mainly male.

  • I encourage my staff to better themselves; professional training, certification, etc. I told them in a meeting they could have my job (no big deal, area manager). Six of twenty employees said they never wanted my job – too much responsibility and too much work.

    How do you overcome that?

  • 1. I want to commend your courage in jumping into gender prejudice in IT.
    2. I hope you chose to stay on this topic for the next week or two, if it gets the amount and complexity of response I suspect it will.
    3. While I will agree that 90% of my fellow geeks who entered college and 89% of my fellow geeks who graduated from college do have the awkwardness and apprehension issues regarding sexual attraction you spoke of, I don’t recall any of us rooting against the technical success of our fellow geeks, unless they were unscrupulous in some way. This has not been true for women from men, in both my observations and their stated experience to me and other “safe” males. A certain percentage of males remain hostile to women in the technical workspace regardless of achievement, and communicate that hostility persistent until the female is marginalized or discredited or leaves.
    4. No one wants to work in a place where they are not wanted, and where they see no certain path that will change attitude.
    5. We geeks learned in college that if we wanted a mate, we would have to learn effective skills and change our behavior. We knew it wasn’t the woman’s responsibility to adapt to us.
    6. Therefore, IT managers, explicitly backed by the organization, have to tell every employee that welcoming and safe behavior towards females is a condition of employment, because it is a company goal. And, be ready to enforce that change in culture.
    7. Just as it’s important not to associate gender with intelligence or technical competency, it is equally important not to associate any particular personality (e.g., Sheldon Cooper of BBT) with genius, talent, or the potential for future achievement.

  • Great post. There’s another aspect you’re missing and that’s the reverse angle. These awkward boys in HS were the very bottom of social status ladder. Pretty girls, heck even average girls wouldn’t give them the time of day. Interacting with them would be dangerous to the girls’ social standing.

    This kind of atmosphere persisted through a large amount of the 80s and 90s. Now extrapolating from there, is it any wonder that women on enrolling in college would go into fields other than IT?? It also plays out in statistics. Engineering while considered nerdy for High Schoolers was not represented as badly as IT(computer nerds). This I think explains why there are more women in some of the other engineering disciplines than in IT.

    Of course my explanation makes sense, but those arguing for all out equality of outcome don’t really care. Google is failing to find women engineers to hire because women are not choosing to become engineers. It’s not googles fault, and its not any other company’s fault. But I do believe it is very disingenuous to spend decades maligning men who choose certain fields as low class and status, and then wondering why women don’t choose to go into those fields.

    Basically if you want women in IT, don’t make fun of the boys they will someday work with. And not making fun of those boys might help the boys learn to socialize better with women like you suggest is needed too.

  • Superb.
    Once again you have led the boys to the painful growth in discovering themselves.
    Enlightenment is a fine disinfectant.

  • Wow. That was some hole you dug there. Normally I find myself in agreement with most of what you say but this time I think you did go with the stereotypes. Nerdy boys who can’t speak to women? It’s our roving eyes? My goodness. I guess we all go home and play with our Lego sets.

    You once made the case that IT professionals can and should be able to interact with the so-called “business” professionals (as though IT is separate from business) by arguing that we communicate freely and effectively with others in social settings outside of the workplace. Some of them are even *women*. Some of them are our sisters, wives, daughters, friends…

    There are professions dominated by one gender or the other. I won’t even hazard a guess as to why but I imagine it is worth examining. Unfortunately looking for the answer means running into a hornets nest of accusations and attacks by political partisans.

    Bob, your articles feature clear and well reasoned thinking *almost* every time. But today, I don’t think so.

  • Research shows a major gender bias in ‘preferences’ – women tend to prefer working with people (and/or animals) and men tend to prefer working with things. Back before computers, men gravitated to cars (and planes).

  • I don’t for a minute doubt that the problem exists. What I find interesting is that my personal experience is exactly the opposite.

    When I was still in IT, I worked for both one very large company and one smaller one. In the small one about half the programmers were women. In the large one women were a much smaller percentage of the programmers, but most of the programmers were from an earlier generation. It was close to a 50-50 split among those of us in the younger generation who came along after a long hiring freeze.

    Notably, though, in both organizations the women outnumbered the men in the database and QA areas. The small company didn’t have a separate help desk, but the large one had slightly more women there than men (and it had a female manager, too).

    I guess I was lucky in high school, too — the “in” crowd was actually the ones with the academic talents. We were just an ordinary, public high school. Granted, I was short of dates but that was due to my own shyness rather than being shunned (lots of female friends, just not “girlfriends”).

    I’d be interested in seeing how the sexes* are distributed by age group — say under 50, 50-60, and over 60. I’ve been out of the IT field for several years, so I can’t really make first-hand observations anymore.

    *I tend to be a traditionalist with the English language. Even if this is now considered a legitimate use of the word “gender,” I still maintain that male and female are sexes, masculine and feminine are genders.

  • Jeez, Bob, I have given you so many compliments over the years but you are really missing a big idea here. Please go back to your very undisturbed thinking space and give yourself however much time and mental resources you need to start over on this one.

    “Uh…” followed by “multivariate causation” followed by high school/ geeks/ attractiveness/ aren’t entirely comfortable/ “I don’t mean this as a stereotype” (the last time I heard this one was earlier this week, when Trump included violence against neo-Nazis in his comments on Charlotte). Stereotypes are worse than wrong, they’re misleading? Statistical tendencies have statistical effects? Pity the poor geeks??? ” 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.” If by this point you are not saying “I can’t believe I said that?” then start your thinking in an earlier place.

    Sorry, there is more of your expression of *totally vile thoughts*, but I don’t see the value of going on. I know you are proud of your daughter’s accomplishments in tech. My father was proud of mine too, but that view did not extend to his views of the place of other women in the workforce or in the world. From me he got a small pass on ideas that did not fit the times he came to live in because he started out in an older time (he was born in 1915), but we did have conversations about it. My thoughts about his lack of progress in his views were informed by something my mother once said to me. She said when I was a very little girl that she knew racism was wrong, but she probably would always have a negative gut reaction to black people because she had been taught that from such an early age (and I can confirm that she was taught that.) However, Mother also taught me and my brother that it was wrong, and she worked on that issue her whole life (her own physical reaction) and made huge progress.

    You do not get a pass on this. First, learn more if you need to. I can tell you that it is not just geeks, and it is not just socially inadequate males not able to deal with beauty. Much of the worst I have seen is from entirely socially adequate males using sexism as a token of power. Second, the issue *is not with the woman, her personal appearance etc.* Are you going to tell people of darker colors to wear whiteface, or people with the Asian eye-fold to get cosmetic surgery? Third, the issue needs to be dealt with before a “manager” gets involved. As some deep part of your brain must already know, this starts before the manager looks at the resumes.

    I know you just set out to write a weekly column. Well, guess what, I have been reading your weekly columns for a long as you have been writing them, and have learned a lot from them. You have a large audience. It is simply not acceptable in this country today for men to be unable to work with women. It is simply not acceptable in this country today for white men to be unable to work with people who do not look like them. You have to do better on this.

    • Judy … I understand your frustration and anger with this piece. I’m pretty sure I know what you wish I’d written – strongly worded outrage over unacceptable behavior and workplace practices on the part of men who should know better.

      I didn’t because that sort of piece is cheap and easy. I said “multivariate causation” because there are lots of reasons IT workplaces treat women more shabbily than men. (I say “more shabbily” because these days, most workplaces treat everyone shabbily.) I work hard to avoid having KJR contribute amplitude to the echo chamber, though, and if I was just one more voice decrying sexism, I’d contribute nothing of value to a complicated subject.

      In the lead I made it clear that sexism in the workplace is just as unacceptable as any other form of bigotry. What I tried to do in the rest of the column was to explore a piece of the picture that’s received less attention than most; also to offer practical advice to all parties regarding what they can do about it as individuals.

      One way of looking at KJR over the two plus decades I’ve been writing it is that if I have no practical solutions to offer I don’t write about the subject. That was the case here as well. My challenge to you: After reading your Comment, what would someone do differently?

  • Timely column. I am sure that having an adult daughter working in the technical space provides additional insight from the female perspective.

    During the past 32 years, I have worked for a number of companies in the information technology arena. One of my stints was 11 years at a community hospital. Half of the IT team was (and still is) female. Most of them arrived in the department because they were power users in accounting, the lab, the pharmacy, radiology and nursing. Their roles were primarily application centric. All of the network and helpdesk personnel were guys. The guys were very much technology focused. Many of them had built PCs, built networks, and many were gamers.

    Take a look at most of the participants in FIRST competitions and similar educational extra-curricular activities – and you will usually see males there. I am not sure why. I have three daughters that all use technology in a variety of settings, but none of them was interested in computers as a career.

    Based on the people I have met in IT departments over the years, it seems that many guys tend to see women in the workplace somewhat differently than they view their male co-workers. Some women who tend to be more attractive can say absolutely rubbish and their male co-workers will just keep looking at them and grinning. While someone who is viewed as less attractive can get cut off – even when making the most brilliant observation or contribution. And the crazy number of guys who imagine all of the women in the office have the hots for them.

    It is definitely up to everyone in the office to keep things on a professional level. There can be lots of awkward positioning when providing IT support to women who are seated for example. As Bob said, learn to control your eyes. Also – learn to talk with everyone as people. Really evaluate what is being said or done more than who is saying or doing it. Most women are working for similar reasons as men – they have bills to pay and things to do. They did not sign up to be harassed or marginalized.

  • I’m struggling with the following paragraph:

    “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.”

    When you say the odds are long they never will, it implies to me that the odds are good that they will! Perhaps you meant to write, “the odds are long they ever will.”

    • You are correct, and even if I’d phrased it correctly it would be open to misinterpretation. As you surmised, what I was trying to say but got backward was that the probability is high they never will; even higher if you avoid contact.

      Thanks for pointing this out.

  • I feel that part of the employment discrepancy in STEM comes from the old saw “Women can’t do math” which we all know is untrue. However I would suggest that women who have trouble with math probably won’t wind up as engineers, programmers, or even scientists or nurses but perhaps elementary school teachers! Girls at a formative age are thus exposed to role models who perhaps unconsciously create an aura that math is hard while boys will ignore this effect. This could be avoided if we required all elementary school teachers to get an A in calculus but of course that won’t happen.

  • One thing that management needs to do and really has to do before someone starts making a legal issue of it is treat the two sexes the same regarding assignments and more important excuses to skip assignments.

    virtually every company I worked for has had manditory overtime. Most of them though there was a magic set of words for a woman with kids. Only a woman with kids. A woman without kids and all men with kids or without were out of luck. “But I need to care for my kids.” This also got you out of trips out of town for jobs. This also got you out of having to go out of town for training. Every time a woman uses this set of word successfully when a man or a single woman can’t get out of equally valid requests she damages the status of all women and does so with the assistance of management.

    Then comes the claims of that this experience should not count. One place I worked I was hired two weeks after a woman. This was a place where a large amount of mandatory overtime was a part of the job. And frankly you got much more valuable experience a lot of time with these assignments. You were permitted to work on systems you never would normally. You got to do up stream tasks which normally the higher ranking staff handled. You got to lead teams on over time when your rank never let you during normal hours. “Hey Ray you guys look into this and get it back up by morning, everyone Ray knows the most about this system so he is in charge”. On the other hand this company was pretty liberal about training. But almost all of it was out of town. The woman hired just before me had kids and used that magic card A LOT. When time came for a promotion a couple years later I got the job she wanted and I didn’t (OK another seperate issue promoting people to jobs they don’t want). She had a fit and then sued. She claimed since she was hired before me that she should have gotten the job. Her lawyer tried to argue that it was discrimination to include any over time experience or any out of town training because she was as a mother not available for these. Think of the harm this law suit and a couple more like it I was not involved in do to the status of women.

    • I’m glad you shared your experience, but after reading it a few times I am lead to ask,

      – Did you respect this woman at all? As professional? As a person? And, if so, after reading your description of her, why did you respect her in any respect, if that was the case?

      And, suppose you were in her situation.

      – What would you have done differently, if you had her life responsibilities, in that employment situation?

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