Found an old post in my other "defunk" blog... This was written on 24th May 2007 after reading a very interesting post by Amy Fowler. It's a long one... So, get some coffee first!
Wow.. I have chosen BIG words for this post. Not that the words are HUGE or difficult, but the topic that this post is about is more or less something I have been wanting to write for a long while now.
Anyway, this post by Amy Fowler, at java.net has stirred something in me to point out the misconceptions that certain quarters have about the topic I posed on this entry today. This is not a male-bashing post about how they treat women in certain industries or how certain industries are suitable for women only. No, this is clearly about women in technology; about why there are so few of us females in technology-based industries.
It is fortunate or unfortunate to say that there are not many women in IT these days. For one, especially in Malaysia or some parts of Asia, IT is still seen to be a man’s/geek’s world. If you go out to any convention, how many women do you see in the audience? How many women do you see asking technical questions or engage in some interesting technical debate? Perhaps it is our Asian culture at play here, but most Asian women tend to be a bit submissive or soft-spoken. However, when given the chance, some of these women display a technical prowess which can put some male techies to shame. The problem is that they do not know how to find a voice or stage to showcase their talents.
I do recall while at university that as I advanced from one year to the next, I noticed that the number of females around me seem to disappear by 50% or even 70% at times! This was a shock for me, but since I came from a class at high school which had 75% males, I thought to myself that this is a situation I had to get used to.
The same situation occurred when I entered the working force. I started work at a medium-sized IT Systems Integration/Consulting company and found that I was one of three ladies who were in the technical department. The rest were male, of course. Most of our internal applications had forms prep-filled with the gender marked “Male” because the number of males > females. Go figure…
Anyway, my CTO did not have much faith in females as he found them to be a distraction for his staff. However, I was blessed to have very capable female seniors who advised me on how to handle the guys. You may have to work twice as hard as the guys in order to gain recognition, or else, they will just brush you aside. The key thing was to tell them off politely or “roughly” when they ask you to do silly things like asking you about how a form looked based on some colour schemes. Some guys were afraid that we could not do anything at all and were afraid to give out any difficult work. So, we had to fight our way to get challenging tasks our way and when called for, rise to the occasion. Once we proved to the guys that we could do the task at hand, they began to look at us for our abilities rather than at our gender.
At times, the guys accepted us as being one of the guys, so much so that at one point, we were asked to do some heavy lifting. Of course, we did not carry the heaviest things but we did our share of moving the odd CPU (which weighed a few kilograms those days) from site A to B. Anyway, the best part of that working environment was that there was mutual respect - after some re-education for both genders.
Now, the question I’m posing today is why are there so few women in IT technology, especially in Asia? This is a question, very difficult to answer. Perhaps the root of all problems lie in education? Or is it culture?
A lot of young girls feel that to be a computer geek, you lose your sense of being lady-like. How untrue!! Did you know that the very first programmer was a lady named Ava Lovelace? She even had a programming language named after her. She also happened to be the wife and mother too.
In my family, my mother objected to me studying the sciences. I had a love for science ever since I picked up my first science book for kids aged 8-10. When I displayed an early affinity for math (age 4), she encouraged it as it was good for school. However, things changed when I entered high school. Suddenly, my parents started to speak to me about career, marriage and family. They said that I should not pick a “very hard course” because after all, I would end up being a housewife. This was the first time I discovered the Asian gender role dilemma.
Undeterred, I decided to pick up the sciences and eventually completed my degree in Computer Science. In fact, after that, my parents encouraged me to take up a Masters in Comp Sc. I declined since I wanted to challenge myself in the corporate world.
So, the first problem that girls face early in their life is that through education or environment factors, they are taught to be put off by science and anything “techie”. I did not start out that way. In fact, I was interested in learning how things work that I used to try to take things apart. I knew that someday, I’ll end up being an engineer or sorts. Of course, I had a HUGE dosage of MacGyver, which fueled my interest in science even more! BTW, I liked MacGyver for the scientific content… I did not think that Richard Dean Anderson was a hunk - unlike many of my friends. LOL!!!
As a girl grows up, she is exposed to many pressures in life, including peer pressure. Perhaps that is also another factor as to why girls suddenly drop their interest in science. Other girls taught to hate science are telling other girls to hate science too. To be smarter than a boy in math or science makes you a social pariah in school. This message is continued throughout their adolescence and even adult life!!
I can’t deny that I am also subject to such pressures too. At times, some woman would come up to me saying that I’m too “rough”. I could not help being “rough” as I had to deal with some MCPs at work and they only answered to authority when you were “like the boys”.
I am currently at the stage in my career where I’ve been asked to fill in some leadership positions. Although I do have some “mentors” like Jack Welch and Peter Drucker who are management leadership gurus, I can’t help to think that these are male mentors. I need to search out some female mentors around too. Why? Well, who best to tell you about the ups and downs of being in an mostly-male management team? Women who have been there themselves.
This also got me thinking of another issue as to find out why so few women are in management positions in Asia. I’m not talking about US or Europe as that is not where I am at currently. This is another question I will look into for another time.
Now, being in a leadership position, I feel that it is about time I gave back to my fellow females some tips and pointers as how to “survive” in the male-dominated IT world. It may not be easy at times but you have to be persistent and consistent.
- Leave your emotions at the door. - This is because any sign of emotions will cloud our judgment to see issues for what they are.
- Be decisive. - Give a firm decision and stick by it. Again, look at tip #1. When you start getting emotions in, that’s when we fail to make a firm decision and may look wishy-washy to others.
- Be brave. - There will be times when we are asked to do difficult tasks. Look at it this way, women has a higher threshold of pain than men. Heck! We can give birth and still walk after all that pain!
- Speak Up. - Ever seen how guys size up to each other. In order to not get lost in the crowd, learn to speak a bit “louder”, i.e. more assertive. I have a friend with a very loud voice. At times, even at her normal range, she sounds like she is commanding an army.
- Learn to ask for help. - There are times when we feel overwhelmed with something, there is no shame in asking for help. If someone thinks that this is a sign of weakness, it is a sign that they have a closed mind.
- Learn to share. - We are not living on an island. Yes, its a competitive world, but you have nothing to lose if you learn to share information with one another. Some females tend to be territorial and hence, does not want to share information with one another.
- Learn to laugh. - There will be times that we’ll face an MCP who will make snide remarks. As much as we would like to see him pay for that snide remark, no amount of punishment will suffice for they will never learn. If possible, make a sarcastic remark about him to remind him that he has a mother… or does he?
- Sharpen that “saw”. - Constantly seek new challenges or study new things. Idleness is the rot of intelligence and it would be ashamed to easily declare that we no longer need to read because we’re mothers/wives/etc… Frankly, a high number of females will not read anything other than those large glossy magazines with how-to articles. Pick up an intellectual book once in a while.
- Don’t give up. - Good words to live by.
- Celebrate you. - Words from Oprah Winfrey rings true. Remember that you are unique and you’re a person although you are a career-woman/girlfriend/wife/mother/grandmother…
This has been a very very long article. I happen to be one of the few women in IT and would like to hear your opinions, and experiences too. Perhaps, I may be wrong about the number of women in technology. We are part of the 50% of the workforce who contribute to using/creating technology everyday. We have graduated from being clerical/secretarial staff who know how to type a few letters/reports to actual engineers who design the very software which does this. So, it is a time to be proud of being one of the few women in technology.
After reading Carly Fiorina's book I saw some similarities when it comes to dealing with males in any industry. There will always be discrimination of sorts anywhere you go; we just have to buck up and face it!
If you don't know who Carly Fiorina is, she was once a CEO of a top Fortune 20 company some years back.