BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
The Women in Technology luncheon at Interop 2014 didn't serve spritzers, but it did explore some interesting ideas about how gender affects tech careers. Panelists debated whether women are encouraged or discouraged to purse tech careers. They discussed how men and women approach certain challenges differently in a professional environment, and they talked about what it feels like to be an outsider in a male-dominated field.
Some women in the technology industry argue that gender-focused conversations only perpetuate the misperception that women aren't cut out for IT careers, and that drawing attention to their minority status may even hold women back in their "male-centric" career paths. But the IT gender gap remains significant, and the issue merits attention. Interop General Manager Jennifer Jessup, who led the panel discussion, even admitted she struggles every year to find women to serve as speakers and panelists for her conference.
Features and E-Zine editor Jessica Scarpati and news writer Gina Narcisi, of TechTarget's Networking Media group, attended the luncheon. Here are their reflections on the stories and ideas the Women in Technology panelists discussed at Interop.
Are women encouraged or discouraged from getting into tech careers?
Jessica Scarpati: From my own personal experience and what I took away from the panel, fewer women are actively discouraged. But the encouraged part -- it's mixed. There is a lot of focus now on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers and getting younger women involved, but I wonder if that is going to take another generation to catch on. It's a pretty recent thing, so women who are graduating college or are in their 20s or 30s now, who have never considered a technical career -- I don't know that it's going to reach them.
Gina Narcisi: I definitely agree that women are not actively discouraged from pursuing technical careers, but I also remember the computer science program at my college being pretty much made up of males. Again, not that we were told we couldn't do it, but it seems like it's historically been a little lopsided. You watch TV shows and movies, and there's pretty much always a predicable-looking 'IT guy.'
Scarpati: Yeah, I think about my brother, who is an electrical engineer, and I remember my dad pulling him into the garage and showing him how things work, and getting that experience. My parents were great, but I was never shown how to fix the car or learn those same things. I remember being encouraged in high school to become a teacher; I think it's so ingrained -- and not just in our culture. It's almost a passive discouragement that happens.
Conversation styles and differences between men and women
Narcisi: This topic was interesting -- the panel mentioned that females and males respond to conversations differently. Sometimes, women apologize before they correct someone or use phrases like "I think" before saying what they know -- it's very passive -- whereas males are typically a lot more direct with their words.
Scarpati: It's interesting because some of the questions that came up were if women should be 'acting like men.' The consensus was that they should not try to impersonate how male colleagues would act, but also not back down. There was also that great anecdote shared by Margaret Dawson, vice president and cloud evangelist for HP. The company she was working for at the time had just sent her to Israel to talk to this team about their products. This company had just gone through several product managers, so things were tense, and as soon as she walked through the doors, they were swearing and screaming at her. She was saying how that little voice that all of us have within her wanted to leave the room or cry, wondering how this was all her fault. Fortunately for her, she was able to take charge and tell everyone -- in no uncertain terms -- to shut up. I don't think that was "acting like a man," but it was responding to the situation in front of her with a similar kind of confidence.
Narcisi: Definitely -- and it's hard! As a woman, you might not want to flip out on a room full of people like that for fear you might be labeled "emotional," but on the other hand, a male doing the same thing might be labeled "assertive" or "aggressive" instead.
Men don't wait until they are 100% ready, while women need to be overly prepared
Narcisi: I really liked this point because I can definitely identify with this. One panel speaker -- Michele Chubirka, aka Mrs. Y, a senior security architect and well-known blogger -- spoke about the day she found out a male colleague in almost the same position as her, in the same company, had a higher salary. She explained that her first response was very emotional, but after speaking with a colleague, she decided to get 'mad' and call a meeting the next day where she asked for a raise. This is not a specific issue within the tech industry, but it was interesting to hear the panel talk about how male colleagues don't plan for how they would bring up an issue like this with their boss, whereas women tend to wait until they have all their ducks in a row and have all their talking points in place.
More about women in tech careers
Career advice for women in IT from tech-savvy female leaders
CompTIA seeks to help advance women in tech careers through online community
Female Boston CEO speaks out for women in technology
Scarpati: Or even applying for jobs. We all know that job listings are more like wish lists than a list of requirements, but the panel mentioned that a lot of women might see a listing and think, if they don't have even one of the skills or certifications, they won't apply for the job. But the panel also mentioned that some of their male peers would think 'I could probably do that,' and go ahead and apply -- it definitely is a confidence issue, too.
Narcisi: Yeah, and maybe it also goes back to the question of 'are women encouraged?' Well, maybe men aren't either 100% of the time, but they might be more willing to try it, anyway.
Within tech careers, is there a chemistry between males that is hard for females to break into?
Scarpati: Whether or not women can 'infiltrate the boys club,' I think it's more about how people tend to gravitate towards others who are like them -- it could be based on things like looks or beliefs, too. During the panel, I was thinking about how -- regardless of whether you are talking about gender, race or religion -- when you start to feel like an 'other,' it is really hard to break through and be confident and not be looked at as an outsider.
Narcisi: Yeah, although women might feel like it's more of a 'guy's world,' trying to force the same small talk -- even if you are interested in the same things -- doesn't guarantee that you'll automatically hit it off and fit in, but that applies to everyone.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter, or email Jessica Scarpati, features and e-zine editor at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @jscarpati.