Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Real Reasons There Are Few Women In IT -- And What YOU Can Do About It

Anthony Baxter takes me to task for being part of the problem, not the solution (while having his mind blown through a weird misinterpretation of my previous article):

Saying "if there's a hostile work environment that discourages women, too bad for them" is a mind-blowing attitude to me. (I'd have also thought that someone who's all about efficiency and that sort of thing would recognise that a more heterogenous team produces better outcomes all around.)

Leaving aside for now the the question of how he managed to twist my position on workplace hostility 180 degrees, here's my wife's verbal response to Anthony's comments:

"The reason there aren't more women in IT is because they're not being hired (or not applying) in the first place!  Not because they're being driven away by hostile environments!"

Actually, she said a lot more than that, but I'm not going to include the rest because some people might be offended.  ;-)

In the more-printable parts of what she said, though, she reiterated the fact that most IT departments in Verio had a ridiculously low number of women in them, when compared to the department I ran.  Somehow, I ended up having half women 90% of the time in a six-person group, while other IT departments with 40 or 50 people were composed of 90% or more men -- all of the time.

Well, as it happened, I hired an equal number of men and women over the years, but NOT through a quota or some kind of "affirmative action".  It simply worked out that, on average, half of the qualified candidates we got were women.

That's probably because part of our definition of "qualified" was whether the person would get along with the group... which means there was a social element as well as mere technical competence.  So, we usually ended up rejecting more male candidates than females for "fit" problems.

So, as it happens, I've actually done something to have more women in IT: I hired them.  And I didn't hire people who would have made our workplace less pleasant, because yes, efficiency is important to me, and morale drives efficiency.

And I know, from actual experience, that men making a fuss about what does or doesn't bother them, is something that's not at all positive for women's (or anyone's) morale, because it highlights them as being different from other people on the team!  When I run a team, everyone is treated equally: with respect for their abilities.  We don't have a "girls team and boys team"; there is just one team, with one vision and one goal.

In short, worrying about inappropriate presentations is far downstream of the actual problem.  The real problems are:

  1. Women don't apply for the jobs,
  2. When they do, they aren't hired (or at least not for the best positions), and
  3. When they are hired, they're sometimes driven out by having to deal with a**holes of whatever variety

The way you fix problem #3, however, is by not hiring a**holes.  Not by trying to teach them Social Skills 101 (like "don't use porn in a slideshow, a**hole").

See, the difference between me and the people who are talking about how we should fix this "problem", is that they believe that it's possible to reform the attitudes of the uncivilized en masse, and I don't.  Instead of trying to reform them, I simply don't hire them in the first place.  No amount of technical competence is enough to make up for somebody being an a**hole, and it's not my job to teach somebody how to be a decent human being.  I'm running a place of business, not a charm school or etiquette academy.

Meanwhile, the way that you fix problem #2 is also by not hiring a**holes.  Not hiring a**holes causes you to hire fewer men on average, thereby leaving more room to hire women (by causing the positions to stay open longer, thereby compensating for the smaller number of women applying).

Now, as for the way you fix #1, I haven't a clue.  My wife's rant on this subject as she left for work this morning implied that there are issues in education, culture, etc., that are relevant here, but she didn't have time to get into any detail.  I've asked her to write a guest post (rant?) but I don't know if/when she'll have time in the near future.

However, I don't know if it actually matters.  If women aren't applying because they aren't interested in IT, is that really a problem?  If they're not applying because they're being discouraged by society in general, well, perhaps that's a problem, but it's not especially actionable on an individual level, so why worry?

But #2 and #3 are  easy to fix (by comparison, anyway), because all you have to do is raise your hiring standards all around.  So, in my view, the people who're so desperate to have more women in IT ought to try doing something about the actual problem, instead of sitting back on their asses talking about how bad other people are (like the socially-challenged porn presenter).  If it's necessary to protest, take it up with whoever hired the presenter, instead of blogging about how bad all those other people are, and oh, won't someone think of the poor defenseless women.  The way things change is when you take action to change them systemically, not by twittering about how bad they are now.

So, to paraphrase an old saying, I would say to those people, "I've upped my hiring standards....  now up yours!"  ;-)

--PJE

(P.S. My wife suggested this evening that this post would read better I clarify that neither of us is saying that Verio's hiring practices in any other departments were discriminatory.  It's just that if you hire the first person who has the technical qualifications for a position, without taking group fit and other personality characteristics into consideration, you're far more likely to end up filling the position with a man, due to the generally-smaller female applicant pool.)

(P.P.S. If, after reading both of these posts, anyone somehow still thinks I support porn at development conferences or having hostile workplaces, their comprehension skills have failed them.  Not only do I not support these things, I've actually done something about them besides flapping my jaw on the internet about how bad they are.  'Nuff said.)