Raise the Red Flag! Concerns over Gender and the Tech Industry

Recently I read an article in USA Today entitled “Danger of Digital Divide….Lack of Diversity could undercut Silicon Valley.”  It spurred me to think about what appears to be a growing divide between men and women in not only the tech industry but tech-type jobs in general.

First of all I would like to make a disclaimer here.  I am not a tech expert.  I still don’t understand “the cloud” in its totality, and I am one of those folks who take advantage of all of the intro classes that the Apple store has for its Mac users. My IT go-to person is my 16 year old son. What it takes me an hour or two to grapple with takes him mere seconds over my shoulder.  “Really Dad?” “Okay, whatever.”

What I can hopefully claim as an area of expertise – that my brilliant son has obviously not yet mastered—lies in the old concept of treating people the way you want to be treated.  At work, it means not only treating people fairly but assigning jobs according to their talents, not their gender or race.  And right now I’m seeing the mistreatment of women at a rate I’ve never quite seen before.

After reading the USA Today article, I decided to do a bit more in-depth research. I couldn’t help but think that we have regressed in our endeavor to not only bring diversity to the workplace but to treat people with both equality and respect.  My online search using the terms gender and tech got me enough articles to keep me busy for the foreseeable future, a future that may not welcome women “into the elite boys club” that the start up tech industry seems to foster…unless we intervene now to stop this practice.

Before we go any further, let me say that self-disclosure is warranted here if I am to keep this newsletter honest.  These articles grabbed my attention in the first place because of something that happened to someone personally close to me.  Being one of the most creative people I know, this Generation Y’er brings a unique skill set to her job in the robotics industry.   Blending her talents in photography, art, event planning, social media marketing, and project management puts her in somewhat rarified air for leading the marketing efforts in emerging new technologies, but it has been a battle the entire way.

Her newly formed marketing department recently moved to a larger office space to accommodate growth and the influx of new employees.  Like shoppers lined six deep for the opening of a new department store, so were the employees lined up to choose the ideal location of their desk.  Just like the gold rush of 1849, those who staked a claim to their preferred area and desk had certain inalienable rights.  One person however was excluded from this fun little free choice, and it happened to be the only woman in the group.

“I have you assigned to a desk already,” said the director of the department.

“Oh?”

“Yes, I want you to sit next to the door.”

“Why so, if I may ask?  I was hoping to “pitch a tent” next to my marketing peers.”

“You are our office manager aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.  I’m in marketing and event planning.”

“No, I think you should sit near the door.  You not only look good and make a good impression to visitors, but we need you to sign for packages as they come in the door.”

“But this is not what I was hired for and not what I’ve been doing the past six months.”

“Nevertheless, this is what I need you to do.  You are organized and detail-oriented.”

“I’m treated differently because I’m a woman,” she told me over the phone.  “It has nothing to do with the quality of my work.  It’s as though they just want me to smile and wave.  How can they dismiss my contributions and re-assign me to a job that I wasn’t even hired for?  Yes, I could probably be a good office manager, but I love what I’m doing and I’m good at it.  Why should I do something I don’t love just because I’m a woman.

By all the articles and accounts this is not an isolated incident.  The tech industry is clearly under fire.  And it surprises me that young men in their 20s and 30s are the ones most often exhibiting bias, not the older baby-boomers who entered the workforce before gender bias was ever uttered.  The tech gender gap is pervasive.  There is simply not a great deal of gender diversity to be found.  Frankly, I have had a fair number of well-intentioned employers tell me that they are having a hard time getting female applicants at anywhere near the same rate as men.  But this is not an article imploring you to do a better job of recruiting.  More to the point, shouldn’t we be treating the women we have with the same respect and professionalism they are due?

So, what should you do?

-For those of you in start-ups, get your HR infrastructure in place early!  This is a no brainer, and yet in my work as a consultant I am still coming across those young companies scurrying about to get the work done, but with no sight of HR on the premises.

-Go out of your way to ask people how things are at work.  Ask both men and women.  Sometimes it is the men who will open up about the treatment of women first.

-Have the courage to call out the things that are wrong.  Don’t think that unequal treatment will just go away

-Talk about inclusiveness.  Make it a priority and a value. Dialogue about this issue is the first step.

-Make sure women are not given tasks simply based on gender stereotypes.  Help everyone do what they do best every day.  If you do, you will more likely have happy and productive “campers.”

Fortunately most of the people we work with are already doing these things, and I applaud you for your good work. For all of the rest of you, well, you know what to do.

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