The world-wide women’s march January 20 – the anniversary of the “coronation” – gives me an occasion to discuss a very serious topic that has zero humor and only disgust: the sexual harrassment (in various forms) of women in the tech industry. I have been in the industry for over 35 years and have seen and heard some very unacceptable things. I have and still do fight against it (to no avail then or now).
The tech industry has traditionally been a men's-only club. Having grown up with a very strong female role model (thank you mom), I have known many strong and highly intelligent women throughout my life. At times, I have actively sought them out.
Background info on my mom. She was an outstanding athlete in both high school and as an adult. So much so as an adult, that back in the 1940's and 50's she was given a full-time job so that a company could beat another company at sports. But she went the extra mile. She would do the same work as men and perform as well or better than them to where she earned the same wages they did. When asked about the ERA, she would respond, “I don't believe in the ERA because I've always had equal rights. Let's see any man outperform me.”
On a professional level, the 80's and 90's were the worst for women. Things I would see my coworkers, supervisors, and management do and say were flat out disgusting. When I spoke up and said that their behavior was wrong, disgusting, and offensive, they would just point and laugh at me and call me a “wilting flower,” the equivalent of today's conservative derogatory term “snowflake.” These were the same people who considered themselves liberal, but just not as liberal as me.
Prior to working at one large Chicago company, I never saw a woman in I.T., except in low-level positions. I always found that strange, considering that I always thought of women as equal to me because of my upbringing. While there, I had fantastic female co-workers, but even then they weren't being given an even chance. I also wound up having the greatest supervisor EVER, a woman. Unfortunately, being great means being promoted, which she was; her male replacement was her polar opposite.
I worked for other conservative – and liberal -- companies. To my surprise, they were both the same in regard to women. This led me to the conclusion this is a societal problem, not a workplace or political problem (though I believe they are related).
As far back as the 80's, I witnessed the abuse of women. It is engendered in the I.T. culture to this day. In the 80's, women were expected to look like @Eye Candy but not allowed to actively participate in engineering decisions.
One example of this occurred at a software company in the suburbs.
In the hardware department, there was one woman. She was black and quite smart, but due to the “old boy's network” she was given all the crap assignments. I mention her race, because the head of the department was a gentleman who was also black. We visited each other’s houses and I would ask why she didn't get better assignments. His response was along the lines of “She's a woman and too smart. She might out-do us.”
“Who cares?” I shot back. “If you're confident in your skill, you have nothing to worry about. As for as being a woman, if she's qualified, then let her do the job.” This got me nowhere.
Fast forward to the 2000's. I was taking care of my ailing mother. I needed a job and joined an office supply store as the resident computer tech. As such, I talked to many people who were looking to start a computer career there. The majority were male and wholly unqualified – with no training in the field -- but most were hired. Two women, however, had bachelor’s degrees in computer science.
The first woman came up to me after the computer test and asked me about her chances. She started with her qualifications (quite impressive). My assessment of her was that she was every bit my equal if not my superior. I said that I would give her a great recommendation (which I did). But my general manager said that he would not hire her and ripped up her application. I was extremely upset and demanded to know why. His response was “No woman will work in electronics here” and walked away.
A couple of months later, another woman applied for an electronics position in the store. She, too, stopped and talked to me. She was not as experienced as the previous woman but still highly qualified.
Again, I put in a great word for her hiring, this time with my assistant manger, a female. She agreed with my assessment, but was reluctant to do much because of the GM's attitude towards women.
Once again, the GM said there will never be a woman in electronics no matter her qualifications, and ripped up her application. I lost my temper and started yelling, knowing I could lose my job for simply embarrassing him in front of customers. I didn't care. Customers overheard and some expressed support. The GM stormed away, beet red.
Later, we had a very petite female cashier who started asking me a lot of questions about electronics and eventually wanted to try her hand.
I said, sure, why not. Let's do freight. To her credit, she was lifting machines that were more than half her weight and climbing a ladder with them to put them away. She later asked to try her hand at sales. I explained what was expected and stayed close by to make sure everything was done correctly. That was something I did with every new electronics employee, regardless of gender.
She handled herself admirably and made sales of equipment and even our protection plans. But when the GM found out, that was the end of that.
My response was that I had proven any woman with sufficient knowledge and desire could succeed in electronics. He wrote me up for going against his orders and told the female to never leave the cash register, except for breaks.
I worked at an extremely liberal company in the city that set up routers and networks. They too had a “No Women Allowed” policy, which I fought as their Network Analyst.
Their argument was that they would have to watch their language and start dressing better. I stated that I had worked with several women in the past in I.T. and ALL of them used the same language if not stronger. And as far as how we dressed, the women couldn't care less. Again, I lost.
Even though I have won the majority of my own career battles, when it comes to the treatment of women in my profession, I have lost miserably. This does not mean I have given up. My resolve has only doubled, maybe even quadrupled, in trying to have a more equitable workplace. Have things improved for women in the tech industry? Yes, they have, but only marginally. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The battle started back in the 50's and is still raging today, but we still have a very long way to go. S.T.E.M. is a start, because it is gender-neutral, but we need more programs that target women to get involved in the sciences.
Nationwide, women hold little more than 1 in 4 (28 percent) of the proprietary software jobs, that is, where major companies like Apple, Microsoft, IBM, HP and more own the code they produce. Women hold 25 percent of the IT jobs overall, according to TheMuse.com. They also produced 5 percent of the tech startups.
Has saying these things and doing these things made me any more popular with women? No. I don't do these things for faint praise or to get a date. I do these things because it's right, that's all. I go home at night and relax by myself without answering to anyone. I go to sleep with happy dreams and wake up being able to look myself in the mirror. That's all I need.
Robert M. Laine has been working in the IT industry for 30+ years. He has a B.S. in Computer Science. He has worked for the Chicago Tribune IT group and as the in-store technician for Staples. You can email him with questions or comments at BobLaine_sw@mail.com and visit LaineTech.blogspot.com