Women in tech: lessons from other sectors

I went along to a bunch of women entrepreneur events in the summer, when I was out of work, to both kill time, meet new people and potentially help my own career.  (I pretty much had a lingering job offer that took a few weeks to formalise, which I ended up taking in any case, which I hope to be made permanent in come the new year).  Anyway, in terms of the kinds of businesses I saw pushed, I was very surprised to find myself as absolutely the only woman in a technical field, in fact aside from a couple of marketers and an accountant, the ONLY woman to not be involved in a stereotypical woman's business.


The most common business was beauty, nobody, not a soul, represented sectors such as industrial, engineering, construction or even less "male" sectors such as law.  There was one accountant.  Just one.  Nobody in IT aside from myself.  While I am inclined to agree with much of what Cindy Gallop says about female start-ups in tech being denied funding, I'm also inclined to wonder if part of the problem is because women entrepreneurs overwhelmingly jumped into traditionally female business sectors.


It does remind me also of my own original background.  I studied music and left after giving up on an MA that was going nowhere.  Despite a decent Bachelor's and a few diplomas, there was pretty much crumbs off the table in terms of work.  I found bits of work playing the organ and teaching various instruments to mostly horrible middle class kids.  It literally was the scrapings of the barrel: in one case, a job, which had it been "fulltime" in terms of teaching hours would have paid the grand sum of £7744 per annum gave me a "contract" of a one page sheet stating, "no sick pay, no holiday pay etc." In other words, you'll be paid just for the piecework, don't complain about it.  To add insult to injury, at the end of a hard 5 month slog including some mammoth commutes, I was told I could apply for my job again next term.  In other words, oh yes but we also forgot to mention you are only ever on temporary contract.


While music in those days was about 90% female at college, I was surprised to find that even the guys who repeated multiple years and failed their finals got good, often senior leadership roles in arts organisations within a few years of leaving college, as much as 25% of the women I graduated with never worked a single day in Music.  Those of us who did had awful roles like the one I describe above, where you were paid a minimal sum for glorified babysitting the children of the wealthy, frequently in schools where you were then subjected to insult by children, parents and (public sector employed) teachers alike.  When two jobs fell apart together in early 2000, I figured I'd had enough.  By that point, I think a 7-day week 30 weeks of the year plus 4-11 hours the remainder, was paying me just under the average wage of the time.  I was physically and mentally exhausted, as the Celtic tiger appeared to be running full steam ahead (and the cost of living with it).  I hadn't had a pay rise in 3 of my 5 jobs for 3 years.  Only one offered me a "redundancy": a pitiful payment of about £500 (about £100 more than what I was officially entitled to anyway).


While I do have some sympathy for those limping along in the still precarious "freelance" sectors which still plague classical music work (and which, by the way, I suspect are still largely female) I've been surprised at the extent to which formerly amateur and volunteer organisations have professionalised, and the extent to which those already in choicely roles have almost exclusively occupied the even choicer roles available in that sector.  I recently had a chance to follow up on a course I took in 1999, and was greatly saddened to hear how most of the young professionals like myself had, like me, entirely withdrawn entirely from the sector.  Unlike those in the nice roles in grant aided organisations, like myself, most came from non-private school backgrounds, from outside of the elite music education sector, and didn't have families with connections sufficient to ensure that the good jobs were all theirs.


In a sense, we were like all of those women entrepreneurs, busy cramming our time and effort into a sector already rigged against us, and unable to tackle more promising opportunities elsewhere at the time.  I realise now, that I probably wasn't the only person going on those summer courses from 1997 to 1999 paying my own course fees in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it might help me either get made permanent, get more hours, or better still, a proper full time job (or even a part time with permanency, the holy grail either way).


Funny enough, the last course I did was in 1999, and I was 90% out of the sector by the following summer.  What happened in the meantime?  Firstly there was a major change in the law, designed to "protect" part time workers by forcing employers to give us equal pay and seniority to full time.  It also ensured that contracts like the one I was forced to sign in January 1997 would no longer be valid: the law established that part time workers be entitled to pro-rata paid holiday in line with full time workers.


What happened?  The one employer who had already been giving me most of these benefits already decided that it was no longer economically feasible to continue operating my department and laid me off.  I wonder, looking back, if my friends from the Cork School of Music summer school of '99 went the same way.  Far from being "protected", I was simply let go.  Nobody mentioned that in the small print.


I started working in IT support in 2000, and shifted to Infrastructure over the next few years.  One thing I noticed was that this area stood out for 2 reasons: 1) it was largely, if not exclusively, male and 2) it didn't require any qualifications as the technologies moved too rapidly to teach such skills in formal education.  The latter quickly explained the former: men, I noticed, were ready and willing to put up a wall of pretence around their real skillsets (i.e. none), whereas women just didn't.  Men would claim to knowing "not very much" on subjects on which their knowledge was in fact zero, while women who might have in fact known quite a bit would insinuate that they too knew "not very much" which bizarrely, was interpreted as "knowing zero."  Yet, thanks to very progressive diversity programs within most of those employers, however, women did tend to scale the ladder in terms of leadership, mostly due to it being seen as a "business" rather than a "technical" skill, though many of the companies I encountered had progressive policies that encouraged women to progress.  And some of them were, frankly, just wise to the fact that so many men lied about their skills.


Of course the push to contracting 10 years later changed all of that.  Women like security.  Women like security, not just because it's nice, fluffy and safe, but because they NEED maternity leave, they need sick and holiday pay, they require surety of tenure in a job in order to provide for their families.  Curiously, a lot of men, even a lot of the men I've worked with (and many are Neanderthals who prefer to be the sole breadwinner) don't worry much about this, because they are sure of themselves enough to not worry about losing a job, even in scenarios where they are under threat.  Straight white men NEVER worry about being unable to get a mortgage, or still have a job in 6 months' time: they are usually very confident that they will.  Why?  Because of white male entitlement.  They BELIEVE themselves to be worthy because they have been taught from early on in life that the world is for them.  Women, on the other hand, both experience rejection and exclusion, and while there is no doubt that they may be at a disadvantage in male dominated industries in Tech, I am starting to wonder the Christina Somers position that the constant talk of Tech exclusion is actually scaring women away from technical roles.  At the same time, there is a level of risk demanded of professionals that is based on a male risk profile entirely: this is deeply unhelpful.


Another issue of course is that a lot of technical roles don't require special skills or qualifications, but are increasingly demanding them.  So my nemesis in two jobs, "Stinky" and "RolyPoly" wouldn't get a foot in the door nowadays because they had no qualifications, but then, neither would I.  Indeed I have often been quite upfront about the overt discrimination I've experienced in Tech on the back of having a Music bachelors.  Even now, companies boast about hiring ex musicians because somehow they feel special on account of having let such unqualified outsiders to pollute their companies!  Its rather like the mental health paradox: everybody wants to be upfront and honest about mental health at work but nobody can be because it is still believed to be an unmanageable problem.


Of course, one of the biggest problems in Tech is that we need to plan for the unknown, which means planning for unknown skillsets of the future.  We have to recognise the reality that men grossly exaggerate their skills not out of malice but because of cultural conditioning, and up skill where relevant, but more importantly, we need to have cold hard conversations with the Stinkys and RolyPolys of this world and explain to them that the skills they believe they have are not what they believe, and that they will need to up skill.  While  such fellows do tend to get "caught out" eventually, usually by the time they do they are often quite senior, making it difficult to change the paradigm.  Contracting out of labour is a pernicious enemy of this process, encouraging deception and rewarding it handsomely.  For this reason I suggest deep caution in the use of consultants and contractors.


The biggest issue, however, is the persistent male entitlement in many sectors like this - creepy male behaviour tends not to result in transparent discussion of the perpetrator, fearing either retaliation or being regarded as a "complainer" with the result that women (and its mainly women, though not exclusively) targeted by such men tend to simply move desk and avoid the perpetrator rather than openly mention it.  Even if they do, it tends to be a slow chain of behind-the-scenes talk, by that time usually the perpetrator has established himself sufficiently to be able to evade the consequences.  The kinds of behaviours I have seen are nearly always similar: "mansplaining", bad personal habits, abuse of working from home, running personal businesses on company time, excessive personal calls, using domestic matters as an excuse to absent himself from work (or demand preferential holidays at busy times), butting in to "help" with technical matters to try to establish superiority, buttering up of management and perceived senior people in order to create "boys clubs" that benefit himself, and in one case, buying unwanted gifts for colleagues.  I've noticed that these guys target women, new hires, and younger staff, anybody they perceive as having less ability to stand up to them.


Unfortunately its often left up to those who have to endure such misbehaviours to manage it.  It is up to the movers and shakers, not the victims, to end such abuses in the workplace: otherwise we'll still be having this debate in 10 years' time.


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