On The Job: Sex and the System Admin Page 2

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.

This article was originally published on Oct 24, 2000

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