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Taking a Purpose-Driven Approach to Righting the Gender Imbalance in IT

Women in meeting

Cathy AlperBy Cathy Alper

Even if you didn’t see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” you are likely well aware of its heroine, a resourceful young woman named Rey. She is smart and tough and a self-taught techy. At one point her engineering skills help her fix the Millennium Falcon in the nick of time, saving the day. In blockbuster fashion, Rey is breaking down stereotypes, showing a generation of young girls and boys that it’s perfectly normal for a girl to pilot a spaceship and face down a formidable foe.

Casting Rey in the lead was no accident. Director J.J. Abrams is on record saying that he wanted to turn the boy-focused saga into a film that mothers could take their daughters to. Abrams showcased a strong female on purpose. And in so doing has begun to change perceptions of cultural norms.

This is an example that we can all follow in our efforts to right the gender imbalance in IT. By making conscious decisions now about how we recruit, hire, support and promote women in technology, we can create a future where women in IT is the new normal.

What We Are Doing

Toward that end, this year CompTIA’s Advancing Women in IT (AWIT) community is focusing on showcasing strong female IT leaders, holding them up as the experts they are in their fields.

Instead of featuring only male experts, we need to make the extra effort to identify and invite women who are leading IT initiatives within their organizations to spark conversations about IT within their industries at thought-leadership conferences.

Ideally, someday, attendees will see a tech panel featuring more women than men and not notice anything amiss. Getting to that place on the conference circuit will take some time, but we’re beginning in our own backyard, seeking out female IT leaders to be speakers at CompTIA events to talk about technology trends and challenges.

Of course, promoting role models for women in IT is a goal for AWIT overall. But it’s not our only objective. If we want to change culture norms, we need to reach people – regardless of gender – with the message that IT expertise is gender blind.

What You Can Do

Realizing gender blindness in IT takes a concerted effort by individual companies in the tech industry. Setting a goal to hire more women is commendable, but you may not be successful unless you take a closer look at your culture. The continuing exodus of women from the tech industry tells us that not all the companies that want to balance their male-to-female employee ratios have created an environment where women can thrive.

Ironically, making conscious choices about how we embrace women in IT requires that we recognize and address our “unconscious gender biases.” According to Research from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), these biases can lead us to judge the same action or outcome differently for women and men — and that negative preconception tends to be more pronounced in situations where a person is one of just a few of that gender, as is the case for women in IT. Indeed, NCWIT says experiments show that women and their work are misperceived as less valuable than men even when their demonstrated ability is identical.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias can sneak its way into every facet of our work environments, from our “help wanted” ads to our office decor. Ferreting it out requires thorough review; here are a few places to start:

  • Is your office professional and inviting, or does it look like a hangout for the characters on Big Bang Theory? Employees – women and men – need to feel comfortable in their physical work environment in order to be successful.
  • Do your advertisements feature men and women? Are the women pictured as leaders, peers or in supporting roles? While this may seem superficial, it sends a message about your company’s values.
  • Are your job postings written with the type of person, (e.g. a man) in mind that typically has done the job (e.g., “results-driven”) rather than describe the required behaviors (e.g., “ability to produce results”)? NCWIT research says candidates may be deterred from applying if they have not been told they are a certain type of person.
  • Similarly, do your job reviews focus on personality traits or performance? A recent analysis of 248 tech company employee reviews by Fortune showed that women are not only more likely to get critical rather than constructive feedback, but also that they are more likely to be criticized for their personality (e.g., abrasiveness, bossiness) than men. Such criticism shows up in two of the 83 critical reviews received by men, but in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women. (Interestingly, the gender of the reviewer was not a factor, so women also need to be aware of these biases toward other women.)

If some of the items on this list never crossed your mind, you’re not alone. That’s why they are called “unconscious biases.” Becoming aware of them is the first step to fixing them and stepping on a purpose-driven path toward righting the gender imbalance in IT.

Cathy Alper is the Community Director for CompTIA’s Advancing Women in IT (AWIT) community. She works with IT volunteers to empower women with the knowledge and skills necessary to help their pursuit of successful IT careers, as well as to inspire women to enter the IT field as a career choice. Alper brings more than 20 years of experience in technology training, technology leadership and organizational development. Before coming to CompTIA, she owned her own business where she taught facilitation and presentation skills internationally.


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