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Friday Philosophy – Sex in The Office

Sex in the office. It’s a bad idea – you can get hurt falling off the swivel chair or desk and there is the ever present danger of the stapler…

Though accurate, the title is of course misleading to make you look at this blog. I’ve actually been thinking about the ratio of women to men in the office, the impact it has and the efforts put in to address it. If you have somehow missed it there is something called “WIT” – Women in Technology – and it is part of an ongoing drive to get more women into the traditionally male-dominated careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics {STEM} and to help them stay there once they are in the industry. I can’t say I’ve been aware of this until the last couple of years but apparently a women is more likely to move out of IT as they get older than a man is.

There is a morning meeting on WIT at the UKOUG Tech15 conference on Tuesday at 8pm (details here) and it is open to men as well as women. I hope to be there as it is a topic I am interested in and support. However, I have to say I have some ambivalence towards it too. Why? Because at some of these meetings you get a bit of men-bashing and also things get suggested which are positive discrimination – and I am not a fan of discrimination, even when you put the word “positive” in front of it.

I work in the UK and I’ve worked in IT now for 25 years. The ratio of women to men in technical roles does not seem to have changed much in that time and has stayed at around 10% to 20%, depending on the business area. My first job was in the national health service and the percentage of women was about 20%. I’ve been in teams where there is not a single woman. I much prefer there to be a higher percentage of women where I work than 10% – and this is not for any creepie “they are more pretty” or similar reasons, it is because when it is all or mostly men, the atmosphere is like a constant boy’s locker room. Juvenile humour, constant swearing and biological jokes are good fun for a while, but not day in, day out. Rightly or wrongly, when the sex ratio is more balanced, so is the humouor and behaviour. I’m told women are just as bad when they are in a male-free environment but I would not really know, would I?

I think over the last 5-10 years there has been some movement though, I think we are finally creeping towards a more balanced ratio. Actually, no , it would be more accurate to say we are progressing to a less unbalanced ratio.

There is no question about the technical ability of women and I am confident in my own attitude towards having women in technical roles – I’ve hired, promoted, supported and reprimanded enough women over the years to demonstrate I don’t have any issues there. But I don’t think we will ever have equal numbers of men and women across the technical roles in IT.

Why do I think this? Because it is about numbers and factors. I have to quickly point out that I am not talking about individuals here and there are exceptions to everything I say but I do run the risk of upsetting people…

One factor is the Autistic spectrum. Or maybe I should be saying Aspergers, as that term was supposed to indicate people with reduced empathy but not reduced cognition (intelligence or learning speed). I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, the fact that when you look at people working in IT there is a tendency towards us being poor at understanding people, uncomfortable dealing with other humans and being happier working with things. ie somewhere in the mild end of the spectrum. Obviously this is not true of everyone in IT and probably is only relevant to, ohhh, 83% of us {Joke! It is probably less than 50%}. It is certainly true of me and a few of my best friends, ironically. Technology appeals to those of us who are on that spectrum, especially when we are younger, as it is easier for us to deal with something other than people. It is also true that you are less likely to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum if you are a woman than a man. Add those two together and over a large enough sample, like the working population, you will see a significant effect.

Another factor is of course that when children come along it is nearly always the woman who takes the lead in childcare. It does not have to be that way, it certainly should not be expected let alone forced. I’ve known couples where the father stops work and takes the main parental role (and they always run up against a lot of sexism about that!) but it is still relatively rare. And taking time off work has an impact on career development and skills because you are not doing the job during that time. I know that when I have not done something for a year or two my skills degrade (I did not do any PL/SQL development work for a couple of years and I was rusty as heck when I went back to it). What is wrong is the tendency for that pause in development to be continued when people come back to work or work part time. We can help address that by making more effort to support people (women and men) coming back to work to continue onwards from where they left off, not be expected to stay still. But, over the whole industry, taking a break to concentrate on family is going to have an impact on not only the raw numbers of women in IT at any time but also career progression relative to age. Again, I stress this is not about individuals, it is about ratios and percentages.

Another aspect is that if you have a break from what you do as a career, it is an opportunity to ask yourself if you still want to do it. If you don’t have a break you are less likely to question your job and more likely to just keep turning up and doing it. Some women drop out of IT due to sexism – but some drop out as they just decide to try other things. On average men are less likely to have such a break and just trudge on, week-after-week, year-after-year.

There are other factors beyond those three but the point I am making is that I don’t think the ratio between women and men in technical roles will ever be 50:50. I would prefer it to be 50:50 but I don’t think it will be. I am also not arguing in any way about being complacent about sexism at work, not promoting women or anything like that. The fact that I don’t think we will ever have parity of numbers does not condone sexism in any way. Everyone should have the same chances and support. I’d like there to be no need for positive discrimination as we don’t have any discrimination – it is all about the individual and ability. As my friend Pete Scott put it on twitter when this post first went up – Humans In Technology is where we want to be – HIT