To illustrate the status of men and women in the data center, picture a computer geek in your mind. Now, be honest: do you envision a man or a woman? Chances are, you probably imagined a man (pocket protector, thick-rimmed glasses, black pants, white shirt, greasy hair and all—okay, maybe not that extreme), but that probably doesn’t mean you’re sexist: it just so happens that IT and data center jobs are overwhelmingly held by men. Given the importance of IT and data centers to so many areas of the economy, the question is thus twofold: is this situation unfair to women, and if so, what should be done about it?
Women Versus Men in the Data Center: What’s the Problem?
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), “women hold 56% of all professional jobs in the U.S. workforce, but only 25% of IT jobs.” Many individuals who have grown up in western societies will immediately see what they perceive as an inequity: women are represented at a certain level overall, but obviously underrepresented in IT (relative to that overall level). And this is a serious problem—right?
Let’s tackle the thorny issue first. Today’s democratic society is highly schizophrenic when it comes to gender: espousing any significant difference between men and women is viewed as sexist or bigoted, yet many will also call for celebration or recognition of women in the workplace—for instance, in an IT setting (see, for instance, “Women in IT are paid more than men at junior level for the first time”). If we’re all the same, what exactly would we be celebrating? Furthermore, the status of women is often linked to race relations, which can quickly stifle any reasonable debate (after all, if you question a certain policy or position, you can be tagged as having attitudes tantamount to racism).
What is required to understanding this situation—in the data center as well as in other professional areas—is a balanced approach that is as skeptical of politically correct dogma as it is of “traditional” views of the roles of men and women. And a little sense of humor doesn’t hurt. (Men should be highly offended that women hold a larger proportion of professional jobs relative to the ratio of men to women in society! Or maybe not.)
Women in IT: Why So Few?
The following are several potential factors causing men to greatly outnumber women in IT. Each has its proponents and detractors, and probably no one factor alone is the cause, but instead some combination of all of them. Of course, different workplaces will have different strengths and weaknesses, so not all of these are relevant to the same degree in every situation.
Gender stereotypes. Women may be discouraged from pursuing an IT or data center career because of the dominance of men in the field and, possibly, a perception that women do not have the inherent ability to perform these jobs at the same level of expertise. Although stereotypes may have some influence, there’s no particular reason (beyond subject matter) that IT would be such a male stronghold. After all, women now hold a more than proportional percentage of professional jobs and are earning more university degrees than men. The heart of the problem seems to be elsewhere.
Biology. Men and women are biologically different. People generally recognize that hormones, for example, affect a person’s behavior, so why is it so far-fetched to believe that women might—as a general rule—be more drawn to one field than another? This is not to say that women are incapable, but they may tend to have strengths or interests in different directions. As far as this is the case, underrepresentation of women in the data center is not a problem. That’s not to excuse harassment or stonewalling the advancement of women in IT jobs, however.
Education. Women now earn more university degrees than men—just search the web for “women earning degrees,” and you’ll find a number of sources to this effect. So, the idea that women are being “left behind” in schools and universities seems mistaken at best, and a lack of education (generally) cannot be to blame. NCWIT notes, however, that “in 2009, just 18% of undergraduate Computing and Information Sciences degrees were awarded to women; in 1985, women earned 37% of these degrees.” Thus, unlike the university at large, women’s representation in IT has decreased over the years.
Nature/nurture. Given the biological differences between men and women, some difference in career tendencies is unsurprising. But another factor in an individual’s choices is upbringing: in particular, what girls see in their parents and in others—as well as how they are guided in their formative years—can cause them to tend toward or shy away from certain careers. With the ubiquity of technology (you really only need a computer and time to learn IT), this doesn’t seem to explain the vast disparity between men and women in both university IT programs and in the data center environment. Gender bias just isn’t sufficient anymore.
Laws and regulations. Although few government regulations (if any) target the IT/data center sector in particular, many of them—although well meaning—are very harmful to women. For instance, the inability of a data center manager, for instance, to ask whether a woman is interested in having children, combined with mandatory maternity leave laws, makes hiring women a greater risk compared with hiring men. And in a difficult economy, that can mean employers may wish to avoid hiring women. Furthermore, quotas (euphemistically called “affirmative action”) can place a stigma on women whereby men believe the women got their jobs based on politically correct preferences and not qualifications and expertise. In the name of trying to help women, many of these laws and regulations have had a negative effect on women’s status in IT and other work environments.
So What’s the Solution?
Depending on your position (a man or woman working in IT, a manager, a parent, a teacher and so on), there are different steps you can take to remedy the situation. In each case, however, balance is required: you’re just as likely to cause harm by being a zealot for equality as you are being a male chauvinist. Remember the law of unintended consequences!
Parents: If you have a daughter that shows an interest in computers and technology, by all means encourage her. Don’t let stereotypes or the current state of the IT industry (mostly held by men) be a stumbling block to your daughter pursuing her interests and developing her talents. By the same token, don’t be a social engineer. It takes all kinds—artists, contractors, farmers, musicians, doctors and nurses, and so on—not just data center employees, so don’t railroad your daughter into a career she doesn’t want.
Teachers: Teachers are in some sense like surrogate parents—their job should be to encourage students in their interests and talents, but not play the part of the social engineer. If you’re, for example, a professor in computer programming or some other aspect of IT, you should encourage women in your class without using them as a means to try to solve the problem. Individuals don’t want to be part of your social crusade, so don’t treat them like tools. On the other hand, if you can impart to a woman interested in pursuing a data center career some extra wisdom on how to succeed (particularly given the challenges women can face in such an environment), don’t hesitate.
Data center/IT managers: Quotas make some people happy, but probably not the women who work for you. Once everybody knows—and they will find out—that you’re stacking the deck for women, all your female employees will be seen as recipients of special favors that have nothing to do with competence and expertise. On the other hand, don’t just completely ignore the situation women under your oversight face. If someone (in particular, a man) is making life miserable for a woman because she is a woman, then it’s your place to do something about it. And yes, you may have to do some differentiating between legitimate complaints and oversensitivity, but that’s part of your job.
Politicians: If you’re in a legislative position, the best thing you can do is stop micromanaging gender relations. You only make the situation worse.
Gender relations is a sensitive issue that has, unfortunately, been complicated by bigots on both sides of the debate. Thus, an honest discussion that cites both the boorish troglodytes on the right and the petty tyrants on the left is extremely difficult. But a reasonable and balanced position can be maintained whereby the disparity between men and women in the data center is seen as a combination of factors—not just some patriarchal bogeyman of oppression.
Overall, the situation may not need as much corrective action as some would maintain. More government regulations are not the answer—indeed, repealing most of them would probably be far more beneficial to women (and to men). For women who are interested in IT, encouraging one another and receiving encouragement from mentors and other in the field is important. Dealing with problem situations (abusive employees and so forth) is also necessary, but that should be the general policy in every business—abuse is destructive. Thus, the disparity in numbers between men and women may be a matter best left to resolve itself in a manner that enables women to pursue careers in IT if they want but also to pursue other careers as well. Let the bigots and social engineers continue to argue among themselves.
Photo courtesy of MadLab Manchester Digital Laboratory