Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 21, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THE IT GIRLS....Jane Margolis writes in the LA Times today about the lack of women in the IT industry:

Women in equal numbers surf the Web and enjoy instant messaging, but only about 20% of computer science majors are female. Only 17% of high school students taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam are female.

....It matters greatly that the inventors, designers and creators of computer technology are mostly males. At the most basic and individual level, girls and women who do not become engaged in the technology are missing the educational and substantial economic opportunities that are falling into the laps of computer-savvy young men.

This reminded me of a post on BurningBird a couple of weeks ago about the difficulties women in IT have with groups dominated by men:

I began to notice a distinctive behavior pattern with this group. There was a very strong dominant male presence, which I know left me feeling pushed out of most of the conversations. When the group fell silent for a few days, and then started up again, another member, a male member, was given credit for rejuvenating the group; and here is me, taking quiet pride in thinking I was the one that had sparked it back to life.

What was worse is that most of the comments I made were ignored. I began to feel invisible. The same old feeling of inadequacy. We had some crankiness among the male members a bit early on, but it smoothed out, and the group went back on track. Again, I hoped I helped on this and I suppose this is a nurturing female type of thing, but I didn't want to be the nurturing female in this one act play.

This is a pretty well known problem, of course, but what made it even more discouraging when I read this was that she was talking about an online group. Even there, where the interpersonal dynamics of male-dominated meetings are muted, she still felt like she was ignored.

I imagine this is at least part of the reason for the relative lack of women in IT: they feel enormously pressured by the obsessive, almost semi-autistic nature of some of their prospective IT colleagues. In most of the IT groups that I've been involved with, you have to be willing to engage in rhetorical near-war in order to be heard, and you have to put up with challenges to your ideas that are so aggressive, so intense, and so basically anti-social that it's almost impossible not to take them as personal affronts. "Forget it, there's no way that will work," followed by an instantaneous change of subject, is a pretty common kind of remark, usually not made with any real malice, but also made with no understanding that it sounds pretty damn intimidating. Unless you're awfully thick skinned, this is an environment that can drain you very quickly.

It's a hard problem from both ends. I've been aware of this problem for a long time, and I try very hard to tone down meetings I'm running where I feel like the guys are hogging the discussion. But even at that, it's a constant struggle on my part not to interrupt constantly. Whether that's because I'm a man or just because I'm Kevin Drum and that's the way I am, I don't know. But I can certainly attest that it's very hard work indeed to tone down both your own behavior and that of the groups you're in charge of, and it leaves no one feeling satisfied. In the end, I doubt that my efforts succeeded other than very marginally.

No answers here, of course, just observations. But hopefully just recognizing the problem will help us to make progress on it.

Kevin Drum 9:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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