Beyond the binary - Is sexism in IT as prevalent as ever?

by Marco Tapia

in management-it-consulting,

August 17, 2017

Grace Hopper, one of the foremost innovators in computer science, was once quoted as saying, “A ship in a port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” This sentiment can be applied to the current state of gender bias in IT and the associated dwindling numbers of women looking to similarly impact the tech industry. Whilst the visceral nature of the male-dominated tech industry is said to breed a normalised level of casual discrimination, there are still shining beacons of light with respect to some of the most powerful figures in the tech industry being women. The prime examples of which include Sherryl Sandberg; COO of Facebook, Susan Wojcicki; CEO of Youtube, and Meg Whitman; CEO of HP. Even in success, however, a bittersweet revelation is uncovered in Forbes’ 2016 list of the 100 most powerful people in tech, as the women mentioned simply round out the top ten; meaning the top seven positions all belong to men (1).
The modern prevalence of sexism in IT can be somewhat attributed to the boom of male start-up founders employing a certain amount of machismo with regards to the corporate cultures that they both define and foster. This style of management serves to create an occurrence known as stereotype threat – a psychological effect in which one who feels as though they are viewed as inferior will subconsciously act in a manner that fulfills the associated negative label. Thus, the battle is often double-edged – one defined by an internal conflict and the other a result of the systematic nature of business. Such structural discrimination may seep into our subconscious to the point where creating positive change can seem hopeless, intensifying workplace anxiety as some fear becoming victims of the negative stereotypes they are continually subjected to (2).
So, then, what are the root causes for such an ingrained level of misrepresentation in IT? The institutionalisation of said standards are perpetuated by our schools, government and media. Furthermore, others have asserted that such high levels of perceived negativity come in the form of unconscious bias, whereby similar traits displayed by both sexes are judged to bolster a man’s perceived occupational efficacy, as opposed to a woman’s. One such example may be a confident woman being viewed as cunning, whereas the same trait in men would be viewed as advantageous. This bias is largely attributed to the fact that all professionals in IT are scrutinised under the guise of a male paradigm (3).
Unfortunately, this disparity is evidenced in several corporate diversity reports with Microsoft claiming to employ 29% female workers across their staff with only 17% in technical roles. Furthermore, Google’s senior leadership team is made up of 17 males and only three women (4).


Action is being taken, however, as James Damore was recently fired from his role as an engineer at Google for "perpetuating gender stereotypes," after stating in a company-wide memo that biological differences are one of the reasons for the gender gap in the technology sector and in leadership positions. Damore feels as though Google are quick to alienate any semblance of a conservative viewpoint, describing the metaphorical thought-prison as a “ideological echo chamber.” WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, sided with Damore by echoing his assertion that an open discourse is widely discouraged in multinational firms that affix a high degree of political correctness to their structure. Assange stated, “Women & men deserve respect. That includes not firing them for politely expressing ideas but rather arguing back”. Damore continued, “Google’s left bias has created a politically correct mono-culture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence” (5).
This conflicting point of view does raise an interesting question as to whether intellectual diversity is being sacrificed in order to maintain the public image of tech giants? Only time will tell if the persistent focus on gender and ethnic diversity being the primary prerogative of senior management will adversely affect long-term profitability.
If one thing is for sure regarding such a sensitive, yet prevalent topic, it’s that positive change must be instilled now to improve the future corporate climate. Recently, in the 2016 Federal Budget, the Australian government unveiled a $2.4 billion “Digital Education Revolution” to help Australian students bridge the digital literacy gap and create a culture of inclusiveness for school-aged children of all genders and backgrounds (6).
The above initiative is a step in the right direction and should hopefully serve to increase the number of females currently entering into IT courses at university. Furthermore, this would eventually help to alleviate the current skills shortage the industry is facing.
At a corporate level, larger companies would greatly benefit from instilling empowered human resource teams that are employed to educate and not only handle the occasional crisis. It is also imperative that such firms implement forums whereby divergent opinions and political viewpoints can be shared in a safe and welcoming environment. Further to the above, strong diversity and inclusion initiatives such as explicit diversity goals, unconscious bias training, employee resource groups and bonuses for referrals of diverse candidates would also serve to speed up the healing process (7).
The question at hand is whether substantial reform will actually be implemented and, if so, will these adequately address the disparities at the core of the IT industry in a manner that appeases both sexes.


Marco Tapia is the founder and Managing Director of PicNet, A leading provider of IT services and solutions to Australian businesses - Click here to learn more.
References & further reading:
PicNet Level 9 Suite 902 28 Clarke Street Crows Nest NSW 2065 Australia