On The Job: Sex and the System Admin

On The Job: Sex and the System Admin


October 23, 2000

Deb Shinder

NOTE: This article is not "for women only." Gender issues in the job place impact everyone, either directly or indirectly. Guys, I realize a lot of you were drawn in by the title and then turned off by the subtitle, but don't leave just yet. If you work with - or anticipate ever working with - female colleagues, this article is for you, too.

As a somewhat high-profile author and trainer in the IT industry, I often receive email from people who are considering a career change to work with computers and networking, who have completed training and/or obtained certification in MCSE, CCNA, CNE or other programs, or who are already working in the field and want to better themselves by moving into a higher-paying or more satisfying position.

Many of these ask the usual questions:

  • How can I get a job if I don't have experience?
  • How can I get experience if I don't have a job?
  • How can I negotiate a better salary in a new position if I'm underpaid in my current job?
  • What are employers looking for in IT candidates?

and a myriad of others. Now and then, I'll be asked by other females (apparently impressed by the fact that I've built a successful career working with computers, something traditionally considered more of a "guy thing"), "how much gender discrimination can I expect to encounter in the IT world?"

The first time I was asked that question, it surprised me. It was something I'd never really thought much about. Today, I think about it often. That's because, at least in some quarters of the IT world, it's a real issue. And it's made all the more frustrating because it's not a flagrant one; it's subtle (and thus insidious).

First, I'll tell my own story, and then I'll offer some suggestions that I hope will:

  • Help other women deal with gender discrimination when they encounter it.
  • Help them recognize why it happens, and understand how women themselves contribute to it.
  • Help them differentiate between true gender discrimination those instances where it's easy to use "discrimination" as an excuse for one's own failures.
  • Help men - and women - recognize how they may be subconsciously discriminating based on gender.
  • Help men and women understand one another a little better in regard to this ultra-sensitive topic, and learn to work together more effectively to the benefit of both genders.

Prior to a mid-life change of priorities that led to turning my long-time love of technology into a new career, I spent many years in perhaps the most "macho" profession in the world: law enforcement. At the time I entered the police academy, approximately 7% of all officers nationwide were female. Years later, when I got into computer networking, I read that approximately 7% of network systems engineers were female. An interesting coincidence, I thought. I said jokingly that I must be destined to always be a seven per-center.

Deb Shinder

Discrimination is a Full Duplex Signal (It Goes Both Ways)

Ten years of making my way through the "man's world" of policing to a position where I was supervising and training big, tough cops proved to me that it is possible for a woman to earn respect even in the most seemingly hostile of work environments. Much of the gender discrimination I saw there was of the reverse discrimination variety: in the public sector, affirmative action initiatives encouraged the hiring of females and other "minorities" even when less qualified. Understandably, many white males who suddenly found themselves on the short end of the discrimination stick were not happy campers. Inevitably, some of them blamed the women and ethnic minority members with whom they worked for their displeasure.

I always had a peculiar view of the concept of "equality." I figured it meant that as a woman, I should have the same opportunity to be hired as a man. Not preferential treatment. I don't want to be excluded from consideration because I'm a woman, but I don't want to be hired because I'm a woman, either. I expect to have to work just as hard as a guy (actually, I expect to have to work a little harder to get the same recognition) and I never expected to be exempted from the "dirty" work just because I was female.

That attitude worked for me as a street cop and as an academy instructor, and I found that once they realized that I wasn't going to "use" my gender against them, most of the guys respected me and we worked together without any problems.

I fully expected the same thing to happen when I switched careers to computer networking.

Does Gender Matter in the IT World?

Those who work with computers have often been portrayed by the media as almost asexual "nerds" who resemble genderless androids. Bits and bytes and cards and cables don't seem, at first glance, to belong to a bastion of testosterone-induced territoriality like guns and badges and fast squad cars.

When my husband (a retired physician) and I went into business for ourselves as network consultants, after many years of working with computers as an almost full-time hobby, the possibility of gender discrimination didn't even come to mind. In fact, our first major contract with a small but quickly growing company in Dallas appeared to be at least partially based on the fact that I was the "woman in charge." The female office manager who hired us seemed to prefer dealing with me rather than with my husband, and if there was any gender discrimination going on, it certainly wasn't anti-female.

Later, as an MCSE instructor at the local community college, I found that my students never seemed to have a problem with the fact that a woman was teaching technical material. I received numerous job offers from headhunters (as did my husband). As far as I was concerned, gender didn't matter in the IT world. Knowing your stuff, doing an excellent job and coming in at or under budget and on time were the important things.

Then it happened. A life-long dream of mine came true - and brought with it a disconcerting discovery that being a female did make a difference, after all.

Deb Shinder

For as long as I can remember, since I was first able to hold a pencil and put words together on paper, I dreamed of being a writer. Through several other careers: paralegal work, municipal government and elected office, police work, and computer networking, I continued to write and to dream. I published a few articles in journals and magazines, I had a few editorials printed in the local newspapers, I contributed to newsletters, and filled a couple of closet shelves with almost-finished novels. I never thought I would be able to actually make a living as a writer, though, until I found technical writing.

Or, to be more accurate, technical writing found me. Okay, to be really accurate, technical writing found my husband. The two of us were frequent, heavy contributors to several high-profile technology-oriented mailing lists. One day a tech book publisher who monitored the lists contacted Tom, asking if he would be interested in writing a chapter for an upcoming book. Tom mentioned that I was a writer, and both of us ended up getting contracts

Why didn't that first publisher contact me? Gender discrimination didn't enter my mind; I assumed it was the "magic" title that I'd seen open so many doors during our marriage: Tom is Dr. Shinder. I'm not. The grueling years he spent in medical school, internship and residency are still good for something, and I don't begrudge him that. It's a form of discrimination (of the positive variety) that he earned. Several months later, after we'd both established ourselves as dependable, accurate writers for the first publishing company, an editor from a second publisher did contact me, and contracted with me to write a book on my own.

No, it wasn't from the publishers that I felt that first sting of gender discrimination.

The Fan Club

Instead, it turned out to be my loyal readers - most of them members of our peer group of networking professionals - who brought home to me the fact that gender discrimination is alive and well in the IT world.

Writing our first book was almost like giving birth to a child. As it should be in childbirth, Tom was there with me, and did a lot. But I wrote ten chapters of that book, and I was darn proud of it. Proud of finishing it on time, proud of how well it turned out. And it wasn't just "parental pride." The book got rave reviews. Everyone was praising it and recommending it.

There was just one problem. Somehow, in the course of all these wonderful reviews, it morphed from Troubleshooting Windows 2000 TCP/IP by Debra Littlejohn Shinder and Thomas W. Shinder, M.D into just "Tom Shinder's book."

What did that mean?

Deb Shinder

Sexism is Alive and Well; So What?

What it means seems to depend on who's doing it. My standard response become "gosh, someday I'm going to write a book, too, instead of only ten chapters of one." Most of the guys (yeah, it was usually guys) got the point rather quickly - and were very apologetic. I'm not looking for reasons to be offended; all apologies are cheerfully accepted. More than one said, "I didn't even think about it." Yeah. That's the problem.

Why did our book become "Tom's book" to so many people? Well, it certainly wasn't anything Tom said; he was almost more concern (and definitely more surprised) by the assumptions than I was. And on numerous occasions, he corrected those whose tongues slipped, and gave me credit for everything I'd written. But the experience caused me to take a second, hard look at gender issues in the IT business. And I had to (reluctantly) reassess my previous assertions that, as long as you do an excellent job, gender doesn't matter.

Once my eyes were opened, I started seeing other, equally subtle signs. On MCSE mailing lists, when someone with a feminine name posts a "dumb" question, guys flock to the aid of the damsel in distress. A male name on the same post would result in body slam. And similarly to the discrimination I've seen in other occupations, sometimes it's the women who encourage it.

I still remember in the police academy, when a male firearms instructor actually shot the target for a female police recruit because she wasn't able to score high enough to pass the qualification test. And in IT, I occasionally see women using their femininity to get out of the doing the hard or "dirty" work. In training centers, I see male instructors being expected to set up their own classrooms, troubleshooting any network problems that occur, while some women (by no means all) get a man to do it for them.

Deb Shinder

What Should We Do (and Not Do) About it?

There are many things that contribute to the problem. In business environments where women are required to wear skirted suits and heels, the clothes make it much more difficult for them to get down on the floor and check cables. When women choose such work-attire themselves, or wear fluffy, elaborate, hairstyles or grow their nails long or otherwise handicap themselves when it comes to doing the physical work, they classify themselves as second-class IT citizens.

Before the hue and cry begins that I'm "blaming the victims," let me say that I believe it's a good thing that we women share some of the responsibility for sexism in IT (and other) workplaces. Because that means we can do something about it.

In my opinion - and this is, of course, only my opinion - what we choose to do (and not do) about it will determine whether the IT world becomes a model for equality in business or follows the traditions of much of corporate America, in which the glass ceiling may be so sparkling clean that it's almost completely transparent, but can still cause a great deal of pain when it's your head that's bumping against it.

Any plan of action requires, as a first step, a clear vision of the goals we hope it will accomplish. In this case, the goal is - or should be - a work environment in which we are each equally accountable for the quality of our work, held equally responsible for the job we do, provided with equal opportunities for hiring and promotion, and treated with equal respect when we've paid our dues and earned our IT "stripes."

What we, as women, can do to make it happen:

  • Get the training we need to be competitive in the IT job market.
  • Get into the trenches and get our hands dirty to get the experience we need to be competitive in the IT job market.
  • Learn the jargon, hang out at the IT watering holes (real or virtual), engage in the "other" form of networking.
  • Be willing to work long hours and accept low pay in the beginning, in exchange for the payoff that will come later, if we do all of the above.
  • Behave professionally, being neither submissive nor overly aggressive, and leaving tears and emotional reactions behind when we go to work.
  • Have confidence in ourselves and our own abilities.

As important as the "do's" are the "don'ts" that we should be aware of as we seek to build our careers in a male-dominated industry:

  • Don't pawn off the "hard" parts of the job - whether that's the mathematical calculations involved in IP subnetting or the physical labor involved in setting up the new server rack - on some willing white knight in shining armor because "girls aren't good at that" or "a lady shouldn't have to do heavy lifting."
  • Don't try to use sex appeal to get a job or promotion, dressing inappropriately or flirting with all the men with whom we work, and then turn around and wonder why we're not treated as "professionals."
  • Don't spend our time bitching and moaning and complaining about how unfair it is that sexist attitudes exist (life is not, after all, fair - to anyone - but we each must play the hand we're dealt).
  • Don't become discouraged and give up hope.

Will you, as a woman, have to work a little harder to establish your credibility as an IT pro? Maybe. But that hard work can pay off, that career ladder can be scaled, and that dream of a satisfying job and a good income can come true. Respect can be earned (it can not be legislated).

What can the men who've read this far do to help? Give us a chance to prove ourselves, as you would any other new colleague. But don't bend over backward to show us how accepting you are of females in the business. Expect the same level of competence - no less, and no more - that you expect from male co-workers. Recognize our accomplishments, and if we work with a male partner, don't assume that he must have been the one who "really" did the work. Give us credit where it's due, and pay us what we're worth. All we really want is to be judged by the job we do - not by a double standard (whether a tougher or a more lenient one).

DEB SHINDER has been a writer since she first learned to manipulate set words down on paper in elementary school in the early 60's, an avid computer hobbyist since she bought her first VIC-20 in the early 80's, and an IT professional since she and her husband, Dr. Thomas Shinder, ventured into a mid-life career change in the mid-90's. She has been a female all her life.