Developing diversity: Will IT ever fix its gender problem?

IT has a diversity problem. And despite being widely acknowledged for a long time, it's not going away in a hurry. Although it's hardly confined to gender, it is the startling gap between men and women in tech — in terms of representation, income and treatment — that has been best studied and documented.

For instance in figures included in the Australian ICT Statistical Compendium 2013, published by the Australian Computer Society, women represented 23.7 per cent of the work force across all IT occupations.

In some segments, it was even worse: Just 17 per cent of software and applications programmers were women. Nine per cent of computer network professionals were women based on figures gleaned from the 2010-11 income year.

"Female taxable incomes are below those of males in every significant ICT occupation," the Compendium notes.

"When looking beyond the IT leadership roles to the proportion of women in IT generally, for 14 per cent of organisations there are no women in the IT department at all, for almost a third of organisations women make up less than one in ten of IT employees, and only four per cent of CIOs indicate their IT teams are made up of a gender balance of 50 per cent or more women employees," the 2013 Harvey Nash CIO survey states.

(This unequal representation extends all the way to the top: "There is only a very marginal change in the percentage of women in IT responding to the Harvey Nash CIO survey in 2013. This year, eight per cent of respondents are female compared with seven per cent in 2012 and 2011," the report also notes.)

Although the existence of statistical studies like these gives an indication that the under-representation of women, at least, is considered a problem by some in the IT industry, it doesn't capture fully the problems of sexism in the tech community.

There is a shameful record of sexual harassment and sexual assault at technology conferences; the grim irony is that if a woman has the temerity to speak up about (or even acknowledge) this kind of culture, rape and/or death threats are not uncommon.

Open source

And sadly, gender inequality in open source communities is widely acknowledged to be even worse than in the proprietary software world. Figures are hard to come by, but a 2009 keynote at OSCON Alex Bayley cited a 2006 EU survey that found only 1.5 per cent of contributors to open source are women.

A survey for a study published in Journal of Information Technology Management, Volume XXI, Number 4, 2010 on open source found that half of the women who participated had experienced online or offline harassment.

However, there are people who are fighting to change the status quo and build an industry that is not just less misogynist, but also more welcoming for queer, transgender and gender diverse people, and under-represented groups generally.

For example, the Ada Initiative founded in 2011 by Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner runs projects aimed at increasing women's participation in open source and open culture including conducting 'allies workshops' that can help organisations create women-friendly organisations and workplaces.

And at the start of this year US feminists launched Model View Culture launched: A publication that describes its mission as aiming "to present compelling cultural and social critique, highlight the work and achievement of diverse communities in tech, and explore the use of technology for social justice".

Ashe Dryden is the author of The Diverse Team: Healthy Companies, Progressive Practices and frequently presents (including this year at on steps that companies and communities can take to build a culture that is more welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds.

Dryden's book makes what could be described as the 'business case' for putting efforts into increasing diversity. "The book is geared specifically at businesses and people who want to improve the culture and the diversity within their businesses," she explains.

"There has been a lot of research that has shown that the more diverse the internal structure of a company, the more creative they are, the more quickly they're able to solve problems. They tend to have a larger market share, more customers, their customers pay more and they tend to have a higher profit compared to competitors that don't have as much diversity."

"There's a lot that we get just from exposed to different viewpoints and different ideas and different ways of thinking about things that we don't necessarily realise without always being exposed to that," Dryden says.

"Businesses directly benefit from the amount of diversity that they have and if a business' job is basically to make money for shareholders, then that should be something that we're thinking about."

Dryden says there is a growing movement that is seeking to tackle technology's diversity problem. "I think that because the people that are looking at the problems of the lack of diversity are getting much more loud; so too are the people in opposition," she adds. However she believes that "on the whole, things are pushing forward".

"Any time that we've made cultural shifts and are looking at positive progress — you see a lot of push back. This conversation is happening a lot more frequently than it was before. I don't necessarily think that, for instance, the harassment and assault that we have at conferences and that kind of thing are increasing.

"I think that the number of people that are coming forward and reporting them are increasing, which raises awareness and also puts the people that have traditionally had the power in tech in a place where they feel like they have to be on the defensive."

An issue with increasing diversity in open source, in particular, is that the majority of contributions tend to be from people who are either paid by their employer to work on a project or who contribute in their spare time.

"Women and people of colour are far less likely to work at businesses where they pay you to contribute to open source or use your work in contributing to open source and also spend a lot more time [taking care of children] and other dependents, running errands, taking care of other people that are sick, doing more housework — they have far less time to actually do those things," Dryden says.

"The statistics that we do have about [diversity in] open source are almost exclusively regarding gender. So we know that only 1-3 per cent of all open source contributors are women for instance."

"A lot of it comes down to a couple of different things," Dryden says. "One is money, another is time, and the last one is professional networks."

Building diverse communities

The starting point for tech communities to increase diversity can be education; for example, people being need to be aware of the relative privileges they enjoy by being part of a majority or dominant group: "Taking the time to educate ourselves about what it's like to walk in somebody else's shoes as — clich?d as it is — and getting to know people who are different to us so we can empathise with other people better," Dryden says.

People also need to be willing to speak out about the discrimination, harassment and worse that take place in the industry.

"When these kinds of things happen, one of the worst things is the people that are supposed to be your friends or your colleagues don't speak up and stick up for you," Dryden says.

"We have a big problem where a lot of people who are coming forward to report publicly the kind of harassment or discrimination they face, and by doing so publicly they now open themselves up to so much more harassment — because 'How dare somebody speak out against these things!'

"Being vocal supporters of the people who have gone through these really horrific things and doing what we can to improve our communities and improve the way that we individually do things is extremely important."

There are "pockets of good and pockets of bad" in most tech communities, Dryden says. "It's also important to note that anybody is capable of making these mistakes where they exclude somebody or remove opportunity from somebody without necessarily realising it," she adds.

"I'm personally part of the Ruby community and one of the things I like about the Ruby community is that we have a lot of these discussions in public, so a lot of people can learn from the discussion and be a part of it," Dryden says.

"I think that the Python community is also doing a really good job trying to push forward diversity initiatives and inclusivity initiatives from the leadership level.

"I think that to make any kind of real lasting progress, we really need more buy-in from people who own businesses, who run open source projects, who run conferences and we're not necessarily seeing that in every community."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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