Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What it is Like to Be a Woman in I.T.?, a guest post from Fiona Pearse, author of Orla's Code

There are few industries that have not yet been infiltrated by women, making hand-cream appear on desks and shoes come out of drawers. But while the numbers of women grow in business, the sciences and the armed forces, the number of women in I.T. has not only remained small over my 15 years of working in the industry but is actually dropping.

Recently I was asked what it is like to work in a male-dominated field. I realised it is a difficult question to answer because having moved country and industry a few times I have worked in a mixture of technical environments: from highly competitive firms like CouperDaye in my novel, Orla’s Code, to non-profit organisations.

My first job was working for a high-pressure multinational where my ambition was attributed to the fact that I was a woman. It was a bit like being a guinea-pig in an experiment, generating a bit of excitement. I used to work late nights to impress my managers – I could feel the weight of representing my sex on my shoulders! I kept up with my male counterparts down the pub as well. I'm not sure that was wise but I had a lot of fun.

Years later I worked in a slow-moving research department but was the only female in the whole building. One of the toilets was supposedly allocated for women - well, me - but this allocation was ignored and eventually I had to put a sign up on the door saying 'Women Only' because some people were not leaving the toilet the way they found it. The sign was taken with good humour mostly but the state of the Ladies toilet deteriorated - someone wanted me to know I wasn't welcome.

I have noticed along the way that being the odd one out means that people always associate your particular qualities with the way in which you are different. For example, people say I am conscientious about meeting project deliverables because I am a woman. I think the logic here is that women have smaller egos and so are therefore more obedient and less likely to be maverick. In fact, I am more outspoken than my male counterparts when it comes to challenging something that I think is wrong. I have even refused to go along with certain things because I thought they were impractical. But people reinforce their existing perceptions, so I deliver targets on time because I am an obedient female!

And then the pendulum swings the other way: weaknesses get attributed to that unusual thing about you as well. I have not taken Tipex to the computer screen yet, but I am aware that some people still believe a woman’s brain cannot be as analytical as a man’s, and I have sometimes found the benefit of the doubt hard to find. More than once a manager has changed my code assuming it was wrong when in fact their change has caused a bug! I don't think they would have interfered with another man's code as easily.

I enjoyed playing with this idea in Orla's Code. Orla starts off as 'The Golden Girl', put on a pedestal by her manager but in practice, she is never taken as seriously as her male colleagues, and when she makes mistakes she becomes an easy scapegoat.

I think the reason why there are so few women in I.T. is because they are put off by the nerd image. And since we don't teach programming in schools, boys get into it through their peers, so the perception that it is a 'boy thing' starts early. It's great to see campaigns entering schools, showing girls that coding isn't just about combat games. I think school kids should learn how to write their own phone app - how much fun would that be? In recent years girls have grown as Tech consumers through the gaming and smartphone industry. We also have our young superstars like Jenny Lamere who are changing perceptions. So the numbers of women in I.T. will naturally increase, I think.

I do the job because I like the work. Like Orla, I have always enjoyed problem solving and creating something. Also I have made great friends over the years because most of the people I have worked with, like myself, recognise the value of diversity in the workplace and want to work in a challenging, changing environment where people are taken for what they are – individuals.

For more from Fiona, visit her website.

Get your copy of Fiona's book, Orla's Code, from Amazon US (ebook or paper), Amazon UK, (ebook or paper), Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.


Karen Wojcik Berner said...

It is difficult working in a "man's" field. I was managing editor of a fire service magazine, so I sympathize with your situation.

Thanks for sharing your story. Good luck with your work.

Ita Ryan said...

As a woman who's also been working in IT for about 15 years, I can't wait to read Orla's Code. I love coding. That moment when your program finally runs! It makes up fir all the nonsense.