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Deconstructing the IT boys' club: Here we go again

Last week, Bridget Botelho blogged about how she had attended the New England VMware Users Group meeting in Newport, RI and found it to be a boys’ club, sparsely attended by women. Botelho was made to feel like something of an outsider, especially when one (male) attendee asked her, “So, why do you write about technology? Wouldn’t you rather be writing about fashion or something?”

Botelho’s blog post (and subsequent comment thread) went on to speculate about the dwindling numbers of women in IT, particularly in VMware, professions, and cites some statistics to that effect.

Today I read Darryl K. Taft’s related column on eWeek, “Do Alpha Male Geeks Scare Women Away from Programming?” The column drew from David Heinemeier Hansson’s blog post on the same subject and discussed whether so-called “alpha-male geeks” and macho programmers might deter women from choosing careers in programming.

“Um… Alpha-male geeks? Is there such a thing?” you might be thinking. Taft and Hansson might agree. Wrote Hansson:

I just can’t get into the argument that women are being kept out of programming because the male programmer is such a testosterone-powered alpha specimen of our species. Compared to most other male groups that I’ve experienced, the average programmer ranks only just above mathematicians in being meek, tame and introverted.”

This got me thinking. As a female in the tech publishing industry (not to mention a life-long girl geek), I’m pretty accustomed to the boys’ club feel of most tech conferences (not unlike comic cons). And while there’s always going to be the contingent of gawkers and incredulous “whoa-it’s-a-girl-I’m-going-to-spaz-out”-ers, I find that generally, these so-called boys’ clubs are welcoming and respectful of female members. And like Hansson points out, most (male) geeks are meek. These days, most of them even know how to put on clean socks before they leave the house.

Of course, IT can be a weird space for women. At any tech show, we have leaders and experts like Padmasree Warrior, Danese Cooper and Lisa Phifer heading up keynotes and seminars, while scantily-clad “booth babes” parade around the exhibit hall. I don’t see that dichotomy changing any time soon, no matter how many girls major in computer science or know how to secure your wireless network.

I don’t have the answer why more women aren’t in VMware, programming, or networking. I think there’s probably some truth to the theory that IT becomes perceived by girls as “uncool,” but the same might be said of any number of professions where women abound.

I do know that what I hear day after day from IT professionals would be enough to deter any sane person — male or female — from selecting a technology career. After all, who wants to be overworked and underpaid? Who wants to work long hours for little reward, only gaining visibility when something goes wrong? Who wants to deal with countless end-user complaints and co-worker headaches… technology that doesn’t work how it’s supposed to… vendors and carriers who don’t deliver… bosses who don’t understand what you’re saying? Who wants to wade through the certification alphabet soup and pay hundreds of dollars for an arguably not-that-useful credential that expires in 3 years? And so on.

Maybe “why aren’t there more women in IT?” is the wrong question to be asking, though. Maybe we should be asking women who are in IT why they chose that path, and how they are succeeding. That might be enough to convince others to follow suit.

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