At USENIX LISA 2011 in Boston last week, the Women in Tech session sparked a rather heated debate on the role of women in information technology, in the work environment, in managerial roles, and in the eyes of their fellow female and male peers.
The panel was moderated by Lois Bennett, senior system administrator for Channing Laboratory at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, who has 25 years of experience in the field. Others on the panel included Carolyn Rowland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); Deb Nicholson, from MediaGoblin; and Máirín Duffy of Red Hat Inc. -- all with lengthy tech careers.
The room was full of women who were eager to listen and speak, while only a few chairs were filled by men. The session started with a simple and straightforward question -- “Is there even a problem with women in technology?” The overwhelming consensus was “yes.” But what exactly are these challenges that women face?
Women in information technology face power and confidence issues
One of the biggest concerns the panelists and session attendees raised was the overall struggle to be taken seriously in the IT workplace. That entails toning down the appearance of “being a woman” in hopes of being noticed for smarts and not looks, putting on a “power” face in order to be taken seriously, going an extra mile to fight for a job position when going up against a man, or demanding sufficient maternity leave time.
In an intriguing spin, one session attendee actually felt that being around all men could be more comforting at times. If there are only two women in the IT shop, there can be competition between them to be the woman, which can be more uncomfortable, she said.
Overcoming issues regarding women and information technology
Despite sharing stories of hardships in the workplace, the main goal in the room was not to dwell on the struggles, but find out how to eliminate them, make the IT shop fairer and diversify the workplace.
Several ideas were thrown around, including paying more attention to how a company is portrayed to potential applicants. Rather than having photos of all men on a company website, it is important to include photos of women as well, for example. This small yet impactful sign of diversity shows that this company welcomes a diverse group of people, not cookie-cutter male applicants.
But going deeper, it's also important to create a work environment that instills fair treatment of all people. One way to do that is by structuring meetings so that men don’t dominate the discussion. Another strategy is to have women-specific training or internship opportunities that offer mentorship and a safe space for idea development.
Women in information technology… speak up! And encourage others to do the same
As much as men and the structure of a company need to conform for women to be welcomed in the IT world, women -- and others not directly involved in potential sexism or -- need to speak up and adjust as well. It’s not about women playing the victims and everyone else changing to meet their needs; women must become thicker skinned and muster up their own confidence to achieve what they want in the workplace as well, some attendees said.
The panel discussed how women need to be firm in asking for raises or promotions, especially if they feel as though they are being deprived due to gender. Understanding the culture and ideas of working in the IT field is also important -- and women can't afford to take all joking personally if such joking is the culture of the shop, some attendees said.
The session came to a close with the overall understanding that while there are concrete issues to be addressed, perhaps the biggest issue is the idea that not many people are aware of them. The fact that the majority of the attendees were women showed that either men don’t think there’s an issue, or they felt that the session was solely for women. Either way, sessions like this one at LISA are one of the first steps to making these issues more widely known. This session and those like it have the ability to educate both men and women on what they can do to make the IT industry as fair and welcoming as possible for all people.