Man, Woman or Martian

Man, Woman or Martian

Since the days of Ada Byron, women's achievements in IT have often gone unnoticed. These days, when a woman scores the top job in a major IT company, the only big deal should be in recognising the individual's achievements. But as Tamara Plakalo reports, that is not always the case, particularly in the channel.

When Lord Byron's daughter, Ada Byron, aka Lady Lovelace, anticipated the birth of computing more than a century ago, only a handful of men - including her peer and the inventor of the computer-Neanderthal known as the Analytical Engine, Charles Babbage, believed the idea possible. In her 1843 article on a machine that could be used in science, as well as in everyday life to produce things such as graphics, Byron described our contemporary world with the foresight and accuracy of a true scientific visionary.

Yet despite acknowledging Byron as the first computer programmer (she came up with the idea of how Babbage's engine could calculate Bernoulli numbers), information technology historians have rarely described Lady Lovelace as "the mother of computing". To be fair, no one ever denied Ada Byron's role in founding computer science. But the "parenthood" honour was bestowed upon Babbage: he was "the father of computing", she was his admirer who happened to come up with the idea of how to make the Analytical Engine perform one of the tasks it was designed to perform.

Perhaps it was at this point in history that men hijacked the world of what has come to be known as information technology. Perhaps not. But some 150 years later, women are still facing an uphill battle in securing adequate recognition for their role in the industry.

How else could one explain the almost hysterical media response to the appointment of Carly Fiorina to the helm of Hewlett-Packard? Why else would Fiorina herself feel the need to play the curiosity of the gender issue down? And, if the issue of gender equality is in fact such a "non-issue" in the liberating and egalitarian world of IT, why did it recently burst onto the IT scene with a force forgotten since feminists made it as offensive to late 20th century women as it would have been to your average 19th century patriarch?

Well, it seems that, in the 1990s, gender has somehow ceased to be a politically correct issue, though it hasn't ceased to be an issue as such.

"I feel quite uncomfortable about being associated with an article about women in IT," confided one of the hugely successful channel executives interviewed for this feature. As if to reinforce her position, she went on to reveal that she doesn't really go to the "Women in IT"-type lunches either, preferring a day on a golf course with the boys instead. Interestingly enough, "gender disclaimers" like this one preceded all but one interview conducted on the subject.

The honourable exception was Michel Hedley, corporate relations manager for the Australian Information Industry Association, (AIIA) and the only man quoted in the text.

There is no reason to assume that the reluctance of women in the IT industry to talk gender issues has anything to do with some unspoken and unwritten codex of male domination. Highly successful women have every right to demand not to be judged on the basis of their gender. After all, their achievements should speak for themselves.

One should also take into account that the homogenising force of technology has made many equality issues appear obsolete or simply passŽ.

But if professional women in this industry believe a bit of equality talk could in effect be detrimental to their standing in what is undoubtedly a male-domi-nated professional community despite their successes (and the mentioned disclaimers indicate they do), then any protestation about the (in)equality of opportunity in IT being a thing of the past should be taken with a grain of salt.

The evidence that women are actually beating men to the top of the IT managerial chain on equal terms is inconclusive to say the least. Yes, 31-year-old Alison Deans might have been appointed managing director of eBay Australia and New Zealand only two months ago, proving that the glass ceiling can occasionally be smashed by corporate ladder-climbers in high heels (not that Deans actually wore them on her way to the top). However, she is only a drop in the ocean of men holding senior management positions.

According to research done by Inform Business Development, under-representation of women in the ranks of senior executives is about the only thing IT vendors and their resellers have in common nowadays. Only 8.5 per cent of all senior management positions in the Australian IT channel are held by women. Significantly, female executives seem to be concentrated in so-called "communication roles", making up 24 per cent of both the channel's and vendors' sales managers and 38.4 per cent of all marketing managers in the same industry group. While the figures show that the presence of women in the channel and, more generally, in the IT industry is increasing, they are hardly indicative of the fact that the way to the top of the decision making chain is not lined with stiletto-breaking traps.

"The disappointing thing is that the numbers haven't changed since the late '80s and gender segmentation is still clearly visible," AIIA's Hedley observed.

"Women occupy around 20 per cent of professional and paraprofessional positions in IT, yet the higher up you go, the less women you encounter. In this industry there aren't many women CEOs, that's for sure."

Precise figures about the number of female CEOs among those 8.5 per cent of senior managers in the channel are not available. Nevertheless, the names of Elisa House and Shara Evans are among them. Yet in the tradition of modesty that robbed Ada Byron of the title "the mother of computing", neither House nor Evans actually refer to themselves as CEOs.

As general manager of Sydney-based Eastcoast Property Software, 28-year-old House initially came to the company she now runs to develop its training division. Two years later, she credits patience, a lot of hard work, her quick learning curve, the willingness for continuous self-education and family support for the success. "I found a great job in a good company and I gave it 110 per cent," House says, "but I also found good people skills to be one of the biggest advantages I had over others. The ability to listen and understand the needs of a client or a business partner is invaluable and, generally, women are better at that than men."

House claims she has never experienced any gender-related career barriers, but remembers a few business-related incidents her gender played a role in. "One gentleman failed to greet me the way he greeted a male colleague of mine, explaining that he thought handshakes were 'a boys thing'," House laughs. On a more serious note, preconceived notions about "boys and girls" need to be carefully navigated or communicated through because, as Shara Evans puts it, "you don't want to ruin it for other women". Of course, "careful navigation" could be as simple as House's not pretending to be "one of the boys when you don't feel that you are". But it can also mean that once a woman talks her way into the senior boys club, she'll have to put a lot of extra effort into being accepted as an equal member.

"It took over a year of lobbying for me to even be considered for the role of Alcatel's regional sales manager for Asia-Pacific," said the US-born Evans, reminiscing on the position that brought her to Australia where she eventually stayed to set up her own telecommunications strategic planning consultancy, Telsyte.

"At the time, the management of [the French telco] Alcatel had severe reservations about the ability of women to work in senior positions in an international environment and when they finally gave me the job, they didn't give me the director's title, as they would have done with a man." Evans felt "a lot of pressure to work hard for other women" and opted for a 24-hours-a-day customer care strategy that earned her a lot of respect from her clients. All along, however, Evans loved what she was doing. Like House, she believes enjoying what you do is crucial to success. Like House, she relentlessly pursued any opportunity for self-education. And, like House, she did so in order to succeed in the industry she never even intended to work in.

Now in her forties, Evans is a political science graduate whose first career interest was in public speaking and publishing. House, on the other hand, initially used her social work degree to show the young people of Perth how to start a business. Both did postgraduate studies in IT-related subjects only after they'd embarked on careers in the field. Coincidence?

Not exactly. According to AIIA's Hedley, only about 20 per cent of computer science graduates in Australia are women, even though they occupy more than 350,000 jobs in the IT&T industry. "Interestingly, women tend to come to IT either through family involvement or from other industries where they had to work with computers, liked it and then made a career jump," Hedley asserted. Evans, for instance, got interested in computers while writing her thesis in political science, for which she used sampling methodology programs. But there aren't many women who make IT their first career choice.

"IT has always been a traditional male domain and it doesn't look like that will change in a hurry," confirms Andrea Cartwright, manager of global strategies with Melbourne-based application service provider "There are so few women in IT management, let alone at board level. I always get the comment, 'But no one is actually stopping them.' This may be true in some cases, but no one is actually helping them either."

It is hard to encourage anyone into an environment where they don't feel they have the same opportunities as the dominant group. Cartwright is one of the few women who took the risk by gaining her Bachelor of Computing before joining the industry.

"In my industry, I find very few women programmers but lots of graphic artists," she laments. "Why? Anyone can program - it is certainly not a male skill. But until the perception of programming being a male skill and a maths-based skill changes, women won't do it. Marketing and HR, for example, are seen as 'women's roles' as they don't [directly] deal with the technology." Because of such perceptions, the presence of women in the IT channel has largely been confined to these so-called "soft" roles. Asked whether this means that there is a glass ceiling in the industry, Cartwright doesn't hesitate: "Definitely! I believe in this industry women need to work much harder than men in order to achieve the same goals - sad but true," she answers.

Grievances and prejudice aside, once they're there, professional women find the industry an extremely satisfying and stimulating environment to work in, even if they do have to pretend it offered them exactly the same opportunities as it did to their male colleagues for the sake of "peace in the house". But for as long as it takes to make the fact whether you're a man, a woman or a Martian irrelevant, history will render women's role - even in IT - invisible. And for an industry that claims to be so progressive in offering humanity technological advancement as an incredible weapon in the struggle for equality, that simply is not good enough.

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