The furor that erupted in the media this week in response to a Google employee’s manifesto that claimed women aren’t biologically suited for high tech careers got me to thinking, and reflecting, on my own 25+ years in the high tech world.
I began working on this post by trying to list all the female superiors, mentors, co-workers and subordinates I’ve had over the years who have had a positive impact on my own career. But, that list quickly became quite long; and so I quickly set aside that effort.
Besides, while recalling my old friends and co-workers brings back many fond memories for me, it would be meaningless to you, the reader. I also did not want to risk missing someone, and wasn’t sure how some of my long ago co-workers would feel to see their name popping up here without warning (or permission). So, I’ll just say that I could not have been who I was in the IT world, and the man I am now, if it hadn’t been for them. To each and every one of of them I give a deep and heartfelt (though anonymous) “Thanks.”
My main motivation for taking the time to rebut Google’s misogynist (and this attitude that is shared by many in the IT industry) is that I’ve never found women to be any less capable then men in any discipline. What I did find, if we are to speak in very broad generalities, is that while men are more often “wizards” at particular technologies or applications; women tend to be more adaptable, quicker learners, and far better at communication and seeing the “big picture.” It is that adaptability, and that ability to communicate, that has made so many women stand out in the many professional environments I’ve been a part of, particularly in leadership roles, roles requiring creativity, and roles that are intended to foster good communication across organizational boundaries.
Some would argue that this is a genetic difference between the sexes, but I see no justification for such a belief. At most, it is but one of many factors to be considered. Rather, I’ve observed that the culture one grows-up in, and one’s position in that culture, have a far greater impact on behavior (and one’s ability to succeed) than does gender identity. When you have power (or think you have power – or think you deserve power because of who you are), listening to what others are saying is not that important. Our misogynistic employee at Google is a prime example (as is our current President, for that matter).
On the other hand, if you are part of a marginalized or oppressed group – as women have long been, and gays, and blacks, and many other groups in our society. Your ability to navigate and prosper in society depends on knowing exactly what is going on around you – all the time. Good listening skills, good communication skills, and the ability to rapidly learn and adapt as things change, are crucial to survive (and thrive) in a world where you are seen as an outsider, or an anomaly.
And, being a “wiz” or “alpha” in any work environment implies you are very focused at being the absolute best, often within a very narrow discipline or technology. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since such people are critical to the success of many IT organizations and projects. But, to achieve that means you must focus on a goal or particular set of skills to the exclusion of all else, shutting out the world around you – which is the very antithesis of being a good communicator or listener.
However, one thing I’ve noticed in the tech industry is that many who are “Alphas” or “Wizards” enjoy that status early in their careers only to eventually become has-beens tied to outdated technologies. They lack the ability to adapt, and their lack of awareness of changes in world around them means they are often unaware of the need to change until it is too late. Everyone I’ve known who’s been in this position has been male. I might also note that “age-ism” in the IT industry, the preference for hiring young vs. old men (or women), is rooted in perceiving this lack of adaptability as a universal trait among those who are older. But, like misogyny, that perception is due more to our habit of slapping labels on people (to their detriment, and our benefit) based on simple attributes, without understanding the whole picture.
So, are women any less desirable or capable as co-workers in IT fields, or any career for that matter? No!
In fact, if anything, it is clear they’ve learned a lot from the men around them; and it is very clear that men as a gender are “way behind the curve” when it comes to learning from those around them.
It’s high time we adapt to that reality…
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