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Breaking the Plexiglas ceiling

Corporations don’t change their cultures to prevent alcoholism; they deal with individuals. So it should be with gender bias. Enterprise Pursuits Nelson King 6/11/2001 Breaking the Plexiglas ceiling Corporations don’t try to change their cultures to prevent alcoholism; they deal with individuals. So it should be with gender bias.

How many years are we into the process of breaking the glass ceiling in IT? One woman told me recently that the ceiling no longer feels like glass, but rather more like Plexiglas–it bends, but does not break.

Believe me, I have no illusions of saying anything here that hasn’t already been said. But that’s part of the point–what has been said obviously has not sunk in and needs to be repeated, and repeated. The notion that women can and should occupy any position in IT that men occupy is widespread, and some companies actually work that way. Unfortunately, many people–the majority in some companies–still don’t act on these notions. Too many continue to harbor covert or overt biases against women in the IT workplace, especially women in positions of authority.

These are likely to be the same people who don’t understand how much the underutilization of half the population can hurt a company. Put another way, IT managers whine about lack of people for skilled positions. How bad is it if a company is ineffective in hiring, promoting, or developing women employees? How much does it cost a company to lose a woman who could save it from competitive failure because its management can’t stand the idea of a woman telling them what to do? And so forth.

The problems that give rise to the corporate IT gender gap are many, varied, and stubborn. For over-simplicity’s sake, I like to approach the issues in three ways: Supply, Demand, and the Status Quo.

The supply side is partly outside the control of a company. The number of women applying for IT jobs is finite, and as all the recent studies show, not growing at a rate we might expect. Likewise, the number of women moving toward upper management is limited. You’d expect to find more male candidates by a considerable factor, and that is usually the case. However, any company that hides behind the supply-side argument (“Sure we like to promote women, but there just aren’t any women to promote.”) is almost certainly busy polishing glass floors.

A company can find out roughly how many women apply for IT positions in its locale. If it’s not attracting that many women, it can examine why. A company can do any number of things to make positions attractive to women (did anyone say maternity policy?) and promote its willingness to hire and advance women. Some companies actively participate in educational and community programs that develop and encourage women’s participation in the sciences and technology. The supply of women IT candidates may be limited, but it isn’t unchangeable.

Demand is a corollary to how a company reacts to supply. A company that employs and promotes women because it’s good business is also going to be the most likely to recruit women actively, champion training for women, support local high school and college IT programs, and otherwise float a raft of policies and corporate decisions that encourage women.

Somewhere between the supply of IT women and the demand for them is the status quo. In most companies that means a small percentage of women are employed by IT, and very few of them in management positions. A recent survey by Deloitte & Touche still indicates that 60 percent of respondents feel that men have an advantage in IT. The survey didn’t say if this was an improvement, or even if it is better than other industries (it may well be). If it indicates anything, it’s that women are not yet on a level playing field.

I know that the chapter and verse is to cite the need for change in corporate culture and the need to create a healthy environment for women. This is a nice sentiment, but is too general; the problems are with individuals. A good analogy is how a company reacts to employees with substance abuse problems: It can deny them, dismiss them, or try to change them (rehab). Corporations don’t try to change their cultures to prevent alcoholism; they deal with individuals. So it should be with gender bias.

There is often a peer-group component in gender bias. Maybe it’s a corporate culture thing, for example, when it’s tolerable for men to refer to women as “broads” or “chicks.” I still feel that in the case of not advancing women, it all comes down to individual managers or executives making their choices, with gender as part of the criteria. In the practice of status quo, change comes only when old attitudes die or retire with the individuals who hold them. That is, unless a company moves beyond denial and is willing to try some forms of rehab (or dismissal) in order to dismantle the glass ceiling.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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