What happened to women in IT?

Gender, Software November 13th, 2006

The only female Software Engineer in the department gave a very interesting talk the other day on how the two genders differ when attempting to communicate. Do women in IT need to communicate in the male way in order to be accepted? No, in fact apparently women who use male techniques are often seen as “bitches” because people don’t expect women to be direct/short/aggressive.

Anyway, I am digressing; after the talk I asked if this difference in communication technique could explain why there are little or no females in the IT industry. Is it that the few females who do attempt to get into the field are met with a solid wall of mis-communication and frustrated, drop out and do something with more of their own kind? This would create a self-perpetuating male dominated field.

One of the old timers at work piped up and said “it hasn’t always been that way”. In my Software Engineering degree, there were 30 dudes, and 3 girls. So certainly in MY time it’s been mostly males, but a bit of history….

  • Ada Lovelace wrote a description of the babbage engine and had the Ada language named after her.
  • Jean E. Sammet was on a comittee that created COBOL and was a lady who worked for 27 years at IBM during the 50’s 60’s and 70’s.
  • Betty Holberton was one of 6 programmers of the ENIAC system back in 1945.
  • More…

So certainly women were a part of it at the start, and if what this old timer was saying is true, there used to be a lot more women in the field 10-20 years ago. So my question is what the hell happened to them all? Is there actually any data showing that the rate of women in IT has decreased?

Futhermore if it isn’t a communication breakdown, or some sort of acceptance complex, is it a brain thing at all? Is it that the female mind doesn’t have the same part of the brain that enables us guys to enjoy programming a fruitful excercise? Or is it a social thing? That from an early age, subconsciously or not, we teach our little boys how to put together lego (which lends itself to programming) and our little girls how to dress barbie dolls (less relevance to programming), and are thus setting the wheels in motion to guide what they do in later life?

2 Responses to “What happened to women in IT?”

  1. grandad Says:

    Just read your comments on the lack of women in IT and wonder if you are perhaps not realizing that there is more to human beings than just how they work.
    When I was a younger man I worked at capacitor design and most of the capacitores were manufactured by women. A production line system, boring but essential.
    We had a Time and Motion ” Expert ” come in so see how production could be improved.and his solution was as set out below.
    The production line was a parallel line where the women faced each other and sat along side each other. The women would talk continuously about every thing from the kids to their husbands and holidays etc.
    The expert decided that if the two parallel lines were reversed so that the women couldn’t face each other, there would be less talk and more production.
    The company actually spent a lot of money rearranging the production lines and set it in motion. Production fell drastically, I mean like 20 % or so.
    What the expert hadn’t realized was that the women have a different brain to men and seem ot be able to do more than one thing well at any one time. Whilst their hands were automatically doing the labour side of the job there minds were stopping them going insane from bordome by talking about what ever took their fancy.
    I’m not a programmer, not am I much of an IT expert, however, it is my thought that women don’t like to be so absorbed by any one subject that limits their ability to think of other every day things. They may be more practical, they are definitely less romantic!
    May be the defference is that there are communicators and lecturers. To be a lecturer one has to be an real expert in the subject matter, to be a communicator it is more necessary to be a listener and be able to have a sense of logic perhaps.
    It is a long while since I worked but when I was , there were plenty of engineers and architects and designers etc. When I say plenty, there were a lot more men but the women were like their male counter parts, good and bad. According to the Institution of Engineers, there seems to be quite an increase in the female representation in the profession. Maybe, IT is too restrictive and doesn’t allow the women to feel part of what is going on around them.
    Just ranting of for the sake of giving my mind a bit of exercise, as I reckon women like.
    You’ll regret getting me interested in all this stuff, just change your address!

  2. Simon Gemmell Says:

    Grandad,

    Women are wired differently. There’s plenty of stuff out there which verifies that, and I reckon you might be onto something there with the chatting and the personal interaction. I think girls really are more inter-personal than guys. And if you think of the stereo-typical geek (and lets be honest, stereotypes exist for a reason), he’s a loner, doesn’t get along well with other people and thus is comfortable bending his entire thoughts to the machine. Women on the other hand always want that human interaction. Ele says she gets lonely at work when there’s nobody around. So maybe the IT career sitting behind a computer doesn’t really appeal to them, whereas being a lawyer or a psychologist (both with more women than men) has more of a human interaction side and is more appealing to them.

    Or maybe, as in your production line example, there is a critical mass that needs to be reached before women will enjoy their work. The way that things are done would be completely different if women were dominant in IT. So maybe because there are no women in IT, women who do IT have to have male characteristics or be doomed to an unfulfilling career.