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The gender imbalance in IT is real, ongoing and ridiculous

The Z80 and 6502 generation wore the sexist stereotype, now it's up to them to fix it

Over the past few years it has been my delight to serve as a judge with Young ICT Explorers, an annual competition of primary and secondary age kids who put their heart and soul into some often very impressive IT projects. After every event I come away seriously impressed with the skills of the next generation.

I judge the projects submitted by Year 5-6 students, and it’s always quite pleasing to note that girls regularly outnumber boys in that age group. Unfortunately, that seems to be the last moment when women dominate IT.

On my first big job out of university, working for a large American telco, writing software for X.25 routers, women made up about a third of the programming staff. I didn’t think anything of it.

Just a few years later, when I went to work for a tiny startup on a rocket ride toward an eventual IPO, our engineering team grew to thirteen men before we added a woman - and when we did, our boss had to take some time to address the concerns of the engineering staff.

Something happened between the early and late 1980s that turned IT into a male-dominated profession. And not just male-dominated, but something just on this side of misogynistic.

There were always a few brave women with enough sheer pluck to stick it out in these frat house working environments, but by and large men climbed into their IT clubhouse, stuck a NO GIRLS sign on the door, and held that line for a generation.

The closing of IT to women began when marketers identified young, nerdy males as the key to sales of those first-generation machines. The mostly-male subculture of hobby microcomputing grew into advertising and media messaging that completely cut women out of the computing revolution. In 1983’s War Games, Matthew Broderick hacks into WOPR while Ally Sheedy looks on in wonder. That’s Hollywood telling women they don’t have a meaningful role in IT.

The War Games generation have grown up. Now principal engineers and senior managers, their perceptions of gender and competence in IT have translated into an industry whose conferences and culture, frequently described as ‘sausagefests’, consist of men talking to men.

Yes, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But the existence of these exceptions proves the point: the gender imbalance in IT is real, it’s ongoing, and it’s ridiculous.

For well over a generation women have been able to take on any role they’ve set their sights on. Both of my lawyers are women. My dentist is a woman. There’s nothing noteworthy about any of that - not in 2014. But how many women run data centres? How many women manage large software or hardware engineering projects? How many women maintain code repositories?

Pointing out something bloody obvious to anyone outside the IT industry inevitably leads to a defensive claim: “I’d hire more women - but so few apply.”

So few apply because the discrimination against women in IT is systemic, pervasive, and (insofar as we can put a pin down) begins in secondary school. The years when young people come into their own sexuality - and their own understanding of sex roles - seems to be when women start to lose interest in IT. Why? Because the entire culture screams at them that IT is a male thing - that it’s part of male culture.

No one has to say this explicitly. A young woman simply needs to cast her eye on the way the culture around IT has developed over the last 30 years to see this for herself.

Any number of wonderful organisations - such as Women in Technology, and the Grace Hopper Celebrations - work both to highlight the pivotal role of women in computing (Ada Lovelace, anyone?) and to open opportunities for women. But neither of these organisations, however well-intentioned, can do this work alone. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

I once asked my furiously smart auntie - just 11 years older than me - why she never went to university. “Back then,” she replied, “girls only went to college to become a teacher or a nurse, and I didn’t want to be either.”

In 1970, women had a two professional career paths open to them. Today, every professional path will take them in - except IT.

It’s up to us to fix this. If, like me, you’re in your 40s or 50s, you grew up with microcomputers and into an exclusively male culture of IT. Now we control the levers of power, and if we want to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters have the same opportunities we have enjoyed, we need to begin changing things – today.

What Hollywood broke, Hollywood can also fix. There’s a striking scene near the beginning of The Matrix, when Neo first meets Trinity. “I just were a guy,” he says. “Most guys do,” she replies - and that’s the end of that.

So have a look around your office. Seeing mostly men? Then you’re the problem.

Seek out bright young women. Mentor them. Given them the access they want and the environment they need to flourish. And if you should find yourself in yet another sausagefest, hold the men there to account. There is another gender.

For my part, I won’t be speaking or even attending events where women have been forgotten, excluded, or ignored. This change begins with me. ®

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