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From the Linux Australia Debate: The Experience of Women in Information Technology

On Sunday, October 27th 2013 a post was made on the Linux Australia mailing list concerning an offer the GNOME Foundation in association with several FOSS provided for a three-month internship for women, specifically "to get more women involved in FOSS". On Tuesday, a poster (perhaps inspired by Sunday's post) argued against "special programmes to address an imbalance between the sexes", suggesting that such programmes are harmful, that merit "shines through inner strength", and that sex-specific programmes should be replaced with programmes for "'incompetent women in IT,' or at least to widen eligibility to include hamsters and fish."

There was, unsurprisingly, a small storm of discussion that resulted which can be mostly be broken up into two perspectives. The first were those who agreed, more or less, with the original poster with the suggestion that any gender disparity in IT may actually simply be "just how it is", that employers are almost always gender-neutral, and that any gender-specific programmes should be abolished. The second group agreed that employment should be gender neutral, but in wasn't, and there were a variety of causes (conscious and unconscious discrimination) for the disparity that justified the existence of such programmes.

Another poster illustrated, from a short search, examples of outright misogyny that has appeared in free software mailing lists in the past. Certainly such attitudes are very much in the minority but more generalised forms of discrimination and especially discriminatory assumptions, are rife throughout IT, the free software movement, and society in general.

For my own part, I decided to do a literature search courtesy of relevant of some twenty peer-reviewed journal articles and a PhD thesis on the subject - the referenced material in this post is but a mere selection of the range. With a background in sociology, there was already an awareness of the pervasive existence of gendered discrimination in various professions, and the same was suspected in information technology.

The first level of analysis was the existence of direct discrimination. Every single one the (thankfully few) cases that were brought to tribunal under the Sex Discrimination Act in IT in Australia since the legislation was enacted involved employers engaging in direct discrimination against women, with the overwhelming majority of the claims related to employment due to pregnancy and family commitments. In all but one case the tribunal found that the employer had discriminated against women on the basis of sex [1]. Note that this is direct discrimination that actually made it to the tribunal. It does not include those cases were an agreement was made prior to reaching to the tribunal, or those cases where the employee did suffer discrimination but put up with it, moved, or was simply unaware of their rights.

The second level is the the issue of gendered workplace cultures which reduce the desire of women to seek employment in IT, or for employers to engage in subtle discriminative patters based on gendered expectations [2] of employment, with widespread survey data backing this approach [3]. The combination of direct discrimination and an indirect discriminatory culture also affects the self-efficiacy [4][5] of women concerning IT work, and as a result, their selected skills [6], which helps explain the persistence of noticeable gendered distribution of employment [7] in information technology which persists even in nominally liberal-democratic societies [8].

The effects of these is that people with equivalent qualifications and aptitudes are not evaluated on merit, but rather on their gender - often regardless of the conscious intentions of employers et. al. There are some illustrative examples of these effects in faculty recruitment in the sciences [9], it also applies to other professions even including orchestras, and has been noted in nation-wide surveys [10]. One of the common effects is that women blame themselves for their perceived lack of success of preconceived inability even though there is no empirical foundation [11].

In an environment where women, from a young age, face constant denigration for even having the temerity to engage in the profession of information technology, where their presence is mocked, their opinions devalued, etc., it is not surprising that one result among the bold and the few that survive this screening process, that they want to create groups, internships, and so forth to help provide a supportive environment against very difficult odds. Some may complain against such exclusiveness on principle; and it is quickly acknowledged to be a fine principle. If this is the case, then perhaps review such groups having a required experience for application. That is, a certain internship it is not reserved for a woman because they are a woman, but because they have experience as a woman in this social environment.

It is hoped that this short review has at least provided a modicum of detail on the level of discrimination that exists against women in the information technology industry. None of this of course denigrates that other forms of discrimination occur towards groups of people in other fields. At least however on a Linux Australia mailing list, where the issue has some immediate relevance, it would be good if people did just a little bit of research of the literature prior to expressing what they must know is a contentious opinion.

References

[1] Hunter, R., Discrimination in IT Organisations, Labor and Industry, Volume 16, No 3, 2006, p91-108
[2] Lemons M, and Parzinger M., Gender Schemas: A Cognitive Explanation of Discrimination of Women in Technology, Journal of Business Psychology, Volume 22, 2007, p91-98
[3] Rosenbloom, J,. et al., Why are there so few women in information technology? Assessing the role of personality in career choices, Journal of Economic Psychology Vol 29, 2008, 543-554
[4] Atkins, M., et al., Making Sense of the Barriers Women Face in the Information Technology Work Force: Standpoint Theory, Self-disclosure, and Causal Maps, Sex Roles, Vol 54, 2006, p831-844
[5] Michie, S., Barriers women face in information technology careers: Self-efficacy, passion and gender biases
Michie, Women in Management Review Vol 21.1, 2006, p10-27.
[6] Kizito, B., "Gender-based analysis of Information Technology skills Development among Business Computing Students". Journal of emerging trends in computing and information sciences (2079-8407), 2 (8), 355.
[7] Appelbaum, S., Asham, N., Argheyd, K., "Has the glass ceiling cracked in information technology? A qualitative analysis: part 1", Industrial and Commercial Training, 43.6, 2011 p354-361.
[8] Ahuja, M, "Women in the information technology profession: A literature review, synthesis and research agenda", European Journal of Information Systems, Vol 11.1, 2002 p20-34 and "Is the glass ceiling cracked in information technology? A qualitative analysis (part 2)", Industrial and Commercial Training Vol 43.7, 2011, p451-459.
[9] Moss-Racusina, C.A., et. al., Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, August 21, 2012, p1-6
[10] Steinpreis, R., Anders, K., Ritzke, D., "The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants and Tenure Candidates: A National Empirical Study", Sex Roles, Volume 41, Issue 7-8, 1999, pp 509-528
[11] Kelan, E., "Gender Fatigue: The Ideological Dilemma of Gender Neutrality and Discrimination in Organizations",
Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, Volume 26.3, 2009, p197-210.