Corporate culture and women in IT

So, I want to start this blog post by stressing that, like all of my posts, according to Gartner’s policies, it is strictly personal opinion. But I feel like this issue is important, and that I can say something constructive in the conversation around the role of women in technology and the culture of technology as it relates to women.

Last month, Dell held a customer and partner summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. During that event, keynoted by CEO Michael Dell, “entertainer” Mads Christensen delivered a set of comments throughout the afternoon that began with, “The IT business is one of the last frontiers that manages to keep women out. The quota of women to men in your business is sound and healthy,” (and asking the women, “What are you actually doing here?”) and ended with telling all the men in the room to promise him they’ll go home and say, “Shut up, b*tch!”

Journalist Christiane Vejlo live-tweeted and blogged the event, and it’s since started something of a growing firestorm on the Internet. Dell acknowledged in a tweet that the remarks were “inappropriate”, and today has issued an apology — in the relatively private confines of Google+.

I find the entire incident to be appalling. I’ve attended conferences in Copenhagen in the past, and indeed, all over the world. I cannot imagine another global technology company which would have scheduled this speaker for an event. (VMworld Europe is in Copenhagen. Can you imagine VMware hiring that guy to entertain?) I’m somewhat surprised they actually allowed him to continue speaking once it was clear that he was going to be offensive — or for that matter, not issuing an official apology from the stage at the time, or even stopping the “show” early. These are not borderline-offensive remarks. These are outright hostile, and I imagine that any line manager at Dell caught uttering them to his staff would be promptly escorted out the door by HR. Given that, the apology should have been issued in Dell’s normal press release channels, and not in the limited-viewership world of Google+.

However, in reading the comments threads on the various news articles about this, I’ve been struck by a lot of the commentary — from the doubting this-is-a-feminist-lie “show video or it didn’t happen”, to “women are biologically less fit to be in technology”. It makes me reflect upon my career in technology, the conferences I’ve been to, the client organizations that I’ve seen, and the way that I’ve been treated.

This is a shortened form of the much longer post that I originally wrote, in the interest of not writing an epic; I may post the rest separately at some later date, but for this, I’ll focus on just one observation.

Corporate Culture Makes a Crucial Difference

I’ve spent over a decade at Gartner, and I’ve dealt with an incredible array of IT organizations, and in each of those organizations, you’ll find a different attitude towards women — and therefore a different proportion of women, especially at the mid- and senior levels. (Note that I’m talking about the IT operations and development, excluding the admins, procurement, non-technical project managers, etc.)

However, in most of the IT organizations I’ve dealt with, there are either plenty of women, or there are a handful of women (maybe even zero or one woman in a technical role); there’s very little in-between. Note that this can be different in different parts of the organization; you might have a team that for whatever reason is particularly good at hiring and keeping women, but in general, if it’s just a team, that team is anomalous in an otherwise male organization.

For instance, there are a huge number of successful women in US federal government IT — and, for that matter, minorities historically severely underrepresented in IT (i.e., non-Asians). Rigorous nondiscrimination, along with the availability of successful mentors, leads to hiring and promoting women — in technical and technical management roles that require ‘hard’ skills as much or more than ‘soft’ skills. This includes places that you would normally expect to be male bastions, like the 3-letter agencies — and in traditionally enormously male-dominated specialties like InfoSec. Teams are mixed-gender and mixed-race; the balance suggests that these organizations attract an enormously disproportionately high percentage of qualified women and underrepresented minorities. My experience is that those people are just as competent, if not more so; quality is not being sacrificed, probably because they get a better hiring pool.

On the other hand, I’ve also visited a Fortune 500 company where the Gartner salesperson was explicitly told that they weren’t comfortable with a woman telling them what to do, and that we shouldn’t bring any more female analysts by to visit them — they said would rather deal with a man, even if that man did not have the same level of subject-matter expertise. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t meet a single woman in IT there. (That’s not an isolated incident; I have many more stories of this sort, although that one is notable because they had dealt with multiple superbly-expert female analysts.)

But most corporate cultures aren’t so blatant. Instead, there are subtle and not-so-subtle indicators about the degree to which women are welcome and respected; these messages come from the top, but may also be reflected in the culture of an individual team, especially given the attitude of a line manager, technical lead, or influential engineer. These things generally directly correlate to the probability of hiring, retaining, and promoting women.

I find it to be an interesting indicator of a company and individual’s assumptions when they’ve read my official Gartner bio (which emphasizes my background in operations and engineering) and how much they ‘talk down’ to me technically nevertheless — particularly when I frequently also had a male analyst colleague on the phone without a technical background, despite having the bios, there were still plenty of people who would de facto assume he was technical and I wasn’t. (Note to AR folks: I hate this.)

Conferences are one of those places where the company’s hidden attitudes come to light. Does the company make use of booth babes? Does the company respect a code of conduct that ensures that presentation material (including from outside speakers) doesn’t contain unprofessional imagery and examples? Is the entertainment particularly targeted towards men? (Note that yes, IT demographics encourage targeting men, but perpetrating this also ensures that it will remain men.) There are comfort things for women, as well — for instance, does the conference provide adequate security and response to harrassment?

And of course: Does your company CEO witness your company-hired entertainer make grotesquely offensive remarks, and not apologize instantly on behalf of your company, to your partners, clients, and employees, for having been party to this?

If you work in technology, regardless of whether you’re male or female, ask yourself: What do I really think about women in technology? And the lack of women in technical roles? How do my attitudes influence my actions, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways?

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Posted on May 15, 2012, in Analyst Life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Lydia, you were one of the very first people to interview me for a sysadmin job when I was starting my career. I was young and clueless and I remember being kind of surprised that my interviewer was female. I was again surprised as the interview went on and I realized you had deep technical knowledge. I know better now, and I feel it is unfortunate that women seem to be faced with this kind of sexism on a daily basis.

    I managed to get hired and over the next four years I was exposed to a work environment that had a pretty decent representation of females in technical roles, the company had a pretty good culture of recognizing people for their ability without regard to their gender or other non-important factors. (There were excellent employees there who had purple hair or who brought snakes to work — gender was the least of our differences!) So much so that when I hear of sexist situations like the ones you have described above, I almost find it hard to believe it still exists.

    I think this is a big problem with the “women in tech” issue: The field is still predominately male, and the attitudes of the men are shaped by their experience. Either they are used to diverse, inclusive environments and don’t believe sexism exists, or they are used to a male-dominated, hostile environment and think “that’s just the way the world is honey, get used to it.” Both find the existence of the other hard to beleive. Reminders like yours serve as a reality check for how far we still have to go.

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  3. Lydia, Thanks for the effort you put into this blog. I’m proud to work for (and I have benefited personally by working for) a technology company that invests in developing women leaders. Darwin taught us diversity improves sustainability, and that Neanderthal behavior such as you observed will go the way of the dinosaur. Bummer it takes so long. You’re not crazy–this stuff is still out there. You have to call it out to get rid of it!

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