On The Job: Sex and the System Admin Page 5

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.

This article was originally published on Oct 24, 2000
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