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May 19, 2013 / KaTe

Women in IT – a very subjective post

Disclaimer: opinions expressed in this post are not meant to offend anyone; they are highly subjective and based on my own experiences.

Just yesterday @thels6 pointed me to a blog post by @pawelbrodzinski on women in IT. Looks like my opinion is sought after :)
I have read this post and the preceding one few times and the only sure thing here is I cannot take a side. Let me explain by scratching the surface of the subject in the longest pos I have written on this blog so far.

Availability of IT girls on Polish market

Let’s start with a story from some years ago, when I was seeking a job as a junior developer, right out of studies. A male friend did the same at the same time. We finished the same school, had almost exactly the same experience (I even had a little more) and tried finding a job in the same city. Result? He sent 12 applications, had three interviews and in 2 months he was in. I sent 96 applications, had 5 interviews (3 of them in the same company) and it took me over 6 months to start working. And later I found out that it was only my experience as a manager and some leadership traits that got me this position. It did occur to me that maybe I was just a lousy developer, but I passed all technical tests and interviews. Especially when I was talking to my female friend who had a similar experience few years back – this time it was 2 vs. 20 with her male friend. Third girl confirmed same scenario few months later. So I’m not alone.
Same situation from another perspective: as a manager I observed good influence of girls on teams, so I was very happy when my team asked for one. Hundreds of CVs, dozens of interviews and a total of female candidates: 3. One of them didn’t know what a hexadecimal is, second didn’t show for an interview and the third one failed at writing an algorithm for a Fibonacci sequence. Finally I was able to get girls, but only via friends already on the team or scavenging from a dismantled project.got root

Why is that? And this is my subjective view:
Girls are really rare in IT in Poland. In one of the corporations I worked with, girls made 11% of the staff, including HR and administration. This is freakishly low. During my studies I was one with 76 guys. There was another girl, but it was temporary.
What I observed was that girls are either brilliant and they excel at almost everything or are just ones trying to go through unsuitable studies to find a husband (and it’s not as rare as one may think). So if there is a team that catches the brilliant one, they refuse to let her go regardless of the price. The rest is just the ones that somehow got through the IT studies and now are looking for any job.
Taking this into account look at the cultural implications of a tradition where a woman cannot learn engineering or maths because she is believed to be genetically impaired towards this knowledge. Once in few hundred there is that one girl who is encouraged by parents to pursue what she was good at, wasn’t brilliant, but good. This is a phenomenon employers don’t really know, thus are afraid of it – will she be as bad as the other girls? Should I risk the simplicity of the male hierarchy for her?
Best are headhunted, worst are suspended between employers. No wonder there is almost no valuable female material on the market. And if there is, it’s a pure gemstone, nobody knows what to do with.

Team building, engineering and too much good stuff

If you come to an open space of a corporation, wander a little and listen you can hear an interesting correlation: if there is a space or a room with no women, the frequency of swearwords is significantly greater. If you introduce a girl to this team, the intensity and frequency of these words diminishes. I have observed this in three corporations in Poland, each one affiliated with a different country, so looks like this is not a factor.

Second thing I observed was the decision making process. Girls acted as catalysts and there were two types – the fighters and the quiet ones. The fighters stood up to what they believed in and argued their point until either they won or someone came up with something better. The quiet type just sat there in silence for the majority of the meeting, but the moment she opens her mouth, everyone goes silent. Her opinion and expertise is extremely valued. In both cases the impact on decisions made was positive – less quarrel later on and braver ideas, but better thought through.

So why I prefer to work with men rather than women? I like to have a female friend in a group, but not too many. Why? Let me tell you another story.

A professor in my negotiations class once conducted an experiment. At first it was supposed to be a joke, but it turned out to be scientifically interesting. The experiment exercise was based on two groups of interests – fruit growers and producers of local vodka. Both, not knowing what the goals of the others are, where supposed to gather points that were later summed up by the agreement they all signed. The maximum amount of points a group could gather was around 20.

The control group consisted of few groups of mixed gender: 2+1, 1+2 and 2+2. In these cases negotiations took between 20 and 40 minutes, and the producers beat growers by around 5 points, resulting in average in 8 vs. 13. So the exercise was skewed somewhat towards the producers, rather than growers. Then professor started dividing groups by gender and giving them same exercise.

When both groups consisted of men, the negotiations took less than 20 minutes each time, resulting in low scores for both. Guys just quickly agreed on something and left to take a break. Scores almost never exceeded 10 points, regardless of the side.

If there was girls vs. boys group, girls almost always crushed boys. It was very hard to get a negative score in this exercise, but somehow guys managed to do this few times.

But when there were girls vs. girls, there was fire. The competitive nature of women showed – only few groups managed to finish within the class time (1.5 hour) and the score was about the same as the control group. So no gain here, just more smoke.

Why was that? My explanation is that women’s competitiveness and attention to detail resulted in discussing and quarrelling about every little thing there was to discuss. Men looked at the broader picture and strived towards a common goal of having a longer break in the end of the class.

Looking at this exercise and my observations I believe the healthiest groups are mixed ones. Don’t strive for too many girls – they may impede the course of work.

In addition in 2010 or 2011 in HBR there was a study published that analyzed gender distribution on executive boards of big companies. The interesting thing was that the more women, the better, but if there was more than three, the correlation stopped. Generally the executive boards with up to 3 women generated about 11% more revenue, but with 4 or more it was less (I couldn’t find the article online, I will scan my paper archive if someone is interested).

It all corresponds with what Anita Woolley wrote, I’m only curious about the team sizes she researched.  Teams with women on them tend to do better, because of their emotional intelligence and instincts they naturally facilitate group discussions and create a bond in a team. They also increase the mutual respect. As long as someone else doesn’t show up in the same dress ;)

Cultures and countries

All my observations concern Poland and our cultural implications. I suspect there is a major difference between how women are perceived and what impact do they have in Poland and outside it and I had some opportunities to observe it – mainly in USA and India, but also in Finland and Austria. There are two major differences I wanted to point out.

First – general cultural perception. In Poland it’s customary to let a woman though the door first, to help her with an obstacle, not let her carry heavy stuff, introduce yourself first and things like this. It’s absent or barely present abroad.

Second – treating women seriously. And this is a huge problem I’m observing. If a girl is just standing there, looking good or mingling, all is great, she is respected and adored. When she is an expert in something, she has to work three times as hard to prove herself. It takes me way more time to prove I have something interesting to contribute than my male friends. Same happens with my female technical friends. Unless we have been introduced by someone that knows us, we have to wrestle someone down or prove someone wrong before being respected in a male group. This is exceptionally visible in conventions and conferences. I also talked with two transgender professionals and they both agreed that their life became harder as experts when they became women.

And again – this is something I failed to observe or was barely there in the countries I mentioned above. It was completely non-existent in India, where women make 50% of the staff and are encouraged by their male colleagues to pursue what they are good at. Interestingly it’s generally testing, but I attribute it to the attention to detail and ability to multitask.

Conclusions 

Employ girls. But not at any price and every single one. Treat them equally – look for your own bias, if there is one, but don’t choose a girl if she is a worse candidate. I once was lured by the prospect of diversity in a team and failed.

Girls in teams rock – just don’t compose a team solely out of girls.

And for the technical discussion – forget there is a difference in gender as hard as it may sound.

 

P.S.

Girls – don’t wear red to work or to an interview. Unless you want to be subconsciously perceived as an object or a beautiful background by all straight men around. It’s in human nature and you can’t overrun it with the most impressive technical demonstration.

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4 Comments

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  1. Pawel Brodzinski / May 20 2013 8:34 pm

    You did take sides, didn’t you? I mean, the part you disagreed with is basically the part that wasn’t in the posts that started everything. I never intended to say, and I believe I never said, to hire women at all cost. I merely pointed that, considering what we know about team dynamics we should change the way we assess candidates focusing more on social perceptiveness, influence on communication, etc.

    There’s one trap though which I believe you fall into, at least partially. Assuming that we don’t question the research, the criteria we judge candidates by should be different. It shouldn’t be all about finding the best female engineer and then keeping her in the team by all means. It should be about finding the best candidate. Now it just so happens, that the candidate doesn’t have to be the best engineer among the pool of candidates, as it seems it doesn’t assure the improvement of a team. I guess that if we are able to go past the legacy hiring mindset the big part of “why there are so few women in IT” discussion will be rendered irrelevant.

    BTW: the experiment you mention, in short, mostly confirms Anita Woolley’s research. Groups dominated by women but with men present did very well. Purely female groups did worse. And purely male groups even worse than that.

    You also discourage people to build purely female teams. I wonder why don’t you discourage them to build purely male teams… They tend to perform even worse…

    P.S. Girls – wear whatever the hell you want to work or to interview. If you are good companies will fight for you anyway (that’s what Kate says) and if you are no good at all it doesn’t matter anyway. If you stick to clothes you like though, chances are good that you will be happier at work and you know what? Happier employees are more productive.

    • KaTe / May 20 2013 10:39 pm

      They way you put it – I agree completely. Let me only elaborate on two things. I didn’t discourage purely male teams simply because it’s sometimes impossible to build another. Finding a girl for a team is so hard, that some teams remain male for long or until they exist.

      And the red: I edited this post few times before publishing and one thing slipped. Color red brings up one of the most basic human needs – procreation. The problem is that if a girl wears a lot of red, the perception of her subconsciously changes. I think it was Richard Wiseman who conducted research on this subject. It’s inadvisable for women to wear red when she has to be proven a specialist, because unfortunately others pay way less attention to what she’s saying. And it’s not something one can overcome by knowing about that.

      Anyway – thanks for the comment. Now I understand how alike we think, we just express it differently. The imperfection of communicating via a language shows :]

  2. Bob from It / May 29 2013 10:12 am

    Sad that society has come to the point that we have to highlight “equal rights”! Sounds a bit like someone has an axe to grind.

    Personally I’ve worked in organisations where the “balance” was tipped either way. Conclusion… too many blokes and it gets over competitive and territorial. Too many ladies and it get very “bitchy” with nasty subversive undertone.

    So whenever I employ I try to keep the split about 50/50. I find this mix makes for a healthy team balance.

    Just saying…

    • KaTe / May 29 2013 10:18 am

      I agree 100%, one gender teams are never as effective as mixed ones. We have to admit that there are differences between sexes, races, religions etc. Mix up, throw different perspectives at each other, the outcome wil be more robust.

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