Women in IT: How are we doing?

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What I find is that IT work for women is complex and contradictory, neither wholly negative nor wholly positive. IT work can constrain and liberate, restrict and empower women.

The 1990s seemed to be a time of infinite possibilities for the information technology (IT) industry in North America. Growth was exponential, rapid and apparently limitless. From 1992 to 1999, the expansion of the IT sector was three times that of the total Canadian economy.

During this time, women moved into IT professions, attracted by new kinds of jobs and the promise of lucrative, creative, interesting work. According to breathless futurists of the period, we would all speed down the information highway, riding our converged media, doing a booming business in a “friction-free economy, where “demand effortlessly follows production.” Wealth would be easily and infinitely generated in an economic parthenogenesis. The screech of the voluminous bandwidth on our souped-up e-vehicles would merge with champagne corks popping to provide the soundtrack of our lives, as our little tech startups mushroomed into multimillion-dollar enterprises.

Work would be plentiful and well compensated and performed either in the comfort of our homes or in the paperless office. In our many hours of leisure time as IT consumers, we would shop on-line, download various media of our choice, buy nifty gadgets, engage in mind-expanding cybersex and enjoy access to limitless information as part of the global cybervillage. Gender, race, age and other troublesome markers of identity would become meaningless artifacts of a shallower, bygone age.

It was a vision of the technological future that rivalled the atomic 1950s in its starry-eyed optimism and firm foundation in consumer capitalism. According to mainstream publications of the IT industry such as Wired and Fast Company, IT work and culture were hotter than a spastic microchip. “Visions of the future,” an advertisement in Wired magazine breathes heavily, “come from a place where we have the power to do anything.”

Other observers were not quite so optimistic. Some hand-wringing prophets of doom took the opposite tack, in varying degrees of nervous nihilism. They pointed to the vast disparities in global access to information and communication. They worried that we would evolve from tool-using to tool-oppressed Homo sapiens. Human tasks, they suggested, would be fragmented into partial, mundane and repetitive pieces, while computers, perhaps delighting in their intellectual prowess, would run resplendent algorithms in the service of capitalism. Decent work would die an indecent death.

As for women, sources debated what negative consequences this technological dystopia held for them. Damsels in distress might find themselves in need of defence on the electronic frontier as internet pornographers, on-line rapists and cyberstalkers massed at their digital and physical boundaries. Mothers-to-be might find their pregnant bodies under surveillance, their fetuses becoming celebrities in ultrasonic reality television. Women might undergo the controlling regimes of workplace monitoring, or perhaps real women might be eliminated altogether with the emergence of virtual, computer-animated sex kittens.

Each of these visions is correct in its own way. Each identifies different kinds of social anxieties and hopes and the ways in which information technologies might mediate them âe¦ But in the early twenty-first century, neither is true while at the same time both are true. Rather, as we clay-footed humans are wont to do, we muddle through, stumbling and weaving over a middle ground. The mundane minutiae of people's daily experiences with information technologies have smoothed the cutting edge of the “information revolution.” At the same time, the banality of these technologies can conceal their potential to enable dramatic changes in work practices.

The history of the so-called information revolution in the 1990s is a contradictory one. Change has been dramatic and rapid and has introduced new possibilities and challenges. During this decade, social and economic inequalities were both alleviated and exacerbated.

In 1991, when I began my undergraduate studies, I was one of the very few students in my residence who brought along a computer. Most of the other students used electronic typewriters. Now, there are Canadian universities who dispense laptops to their students as a routine matter. Those of us who had the privilege of learning how to use computers learned to make our communication and representations abstract, dispersed into networks and webs rather than lines. Users in fields like arts, social sciences and humanities discovered the vast potential of new kinds of software for creating new kinds of research and projectsâe¦

And what of women who currently work with information technologies? âe¦ What work are women now doing in the IT field in Canada? Where are they most likely to be found, and why? Has the expansion of the information technology field represented a significant shift in how work is experienced and performed and, if so, what form has this shift taken? What opportunities have women found, and what obstacles?

These questions are deceptively simple. It can be difficult to get a clear picture of women's work in the IT field. For example, one of the most common places to look is at enrollments in technical education. We can tell with a brief glance at educational statistics that women's enrollment in post-secondary-level computer science has stagnated or declined, which is an interesting fact in itself, but a computer science degree is most certainly not a prerequisite to be an IT worker.

Statistics about the gender breakdown of the labour force can be hard to interpret, since IT work cuts across many industrial and occupational categories. Some IT workers are hidden at home, doing contract, freelance, part-time or other forms of precarious work. Some IT workers do technical tasks as part of their daily routine, but their official job title is not considered a technical one. Information technologies and changes in work practices have created many new types of jobs and reconfigured old ones. What I call hybrid jobs — jobs which combine various backgrounds, disciplines and types of tasks — have emerged. IT work, then, is a category of convenience rather than precision, which suggests a loose grouping of work types that can vary by actual tasks performed, by work practices and by the relationship between employer and employee.

What is officially defined as IT work is in itself a political issue. IT work, as an idea, is highly valued, often near-mystical. IT's origins in the masculine world of the military, computer science labs and technical institutes still lend it a character of unassailable worth. Nonâe"IT workers — I use this term advisedly, since all forms of work have been changed by technological developments — may not be sure what, exactly, IT workers do in a day. They often cannot understand it even if the IT worker is generous enough to explain it (and this generosity is a rare pleasure, since many computer-proficient people look down on “newbies” with open disdain).

Yet nonâe"IT workers may not fault or question the IT workers, because they may assume that the field is simply incomprehensible to the uninitiated. And, indeed, it can be: the common language of this work resembles medieval Kabbalistic incantations in its cryptic syntax, invented words, numerological symbols and peculiar verbal rituals.

Let us say, for example, that I ask my sysadmin (systems administrator) how she resuscitated my email after it choked on a piece of rather bony code. She might respond, “Well Krista, I telnet'ed to 110 and logged into the POP3 server manually. The LIST showed me the large message, so i RETR'ed it, captured it in my term buffer, and DELE'd it so that you could POP without stupid Outlook croaking every time its parsing engine hits non-standard JavaScript in text/html.” If she were like many sysadmins, she might serve up this plate of gibberish with a side order of implied contempt for choosing “stupid Outlook.” At this point, I would probably scurry back to my office and the odious Outlook, too afraid to make further inquiries. âe¦

Despite significant categorical changes in the nature of certain kinds of work, many new opportunities for women in the field and the diversity of women's work in IT, women's experiences of gender stratification in the labour force and workplace have remained remarkably consistent. Women, as a group, continue to be paid less and do more unpaid work than men, and this continues to affect their choice of work. Although many female IT workers love their jobs and the work they do, they continue to experience workplace harassment and both overt and covert discrimination based on their gender, race/ethnicity, age, class and sexuality.

Their work continues to be undervalued and their home-based paid work is often seen as an extension of their role as homemaker. They continue to be a small minority in a male-dominated field, and even when they work for IT companies or in technical industries, they are more likely to be doing female-typed jobs. They are barely present in technical fields in universities, and if they do enroll, they soon drop out. They often find their way into IT accidentally, as a result of a non-linear career path, rather than as a deliberate choice.

Even more worrying is that the small gains women have made in the latter half of the twentieth century may be eroding in the face of larger labour market shifts that render jobs more tenuous. Increasingly, workers are getting by (or not) with a collage of contingent jobs, including part-time and contract work, as well as solo self-employment. When speaking of overall socio-economic conditions, people often say that a rising tide lifts all boats. It's clear that a persuasively pulling undertow can also suck them down.

How can we explain these persistent and problematic trends? IT was supposed to free us from conventional markers of identity and level the playing field for everyone. Rational, traditional theories of work choice would tell us that women's under-representation in the IT field is because women are simply uninterested in participating in the IT field, whether by choice or design. Many well-meaning initiatives still struggle to interest girls in technology, and often imply that there is some deficit in females, some attitudinal tic or experiential absence that simply needs to be corrected. Earnest psychological literature suggests that women just can't hack the tech, cognitively speaking, perhaps because of the size of their hypothalamus or their relative levels of endogeneous testosterone, while popular evolutionary theories might even go so far as to construct elaborate links between the imagined behaviour of cave-dwelling Homo sapiens and the present behaviour of cubicle-dwelling Femina sapiens technologica.

But simplistic explanations of women's inherent technological deficit and dislike do not sit well with me. Metaphorically speaking, it's like trying to ram a parallel connector into a USB port. I can probably make it fit with a sufficient application of force, but it probably isn't going to work all that well. I have heard too many women speak with passion about their work in IT, about the thrill in solving a difficult problem, about the ease with which difficult tasks can be completed, about the world of possibilities which the technology has created for them, to believe such simple dismissals of women's relationship with IT.

“I am in love with computers,” says one woman to me. Another woman tells me about the intuitive, excited feeling “in her gut” that she gets when finding a solution to a technical problem. A third woman, not in the least fearful of technological objects, gleefully performs “percussive maintenance” on her hard drive by giving it a whack when it misbehaves, to jiggle the hard drive back in (I confess to doing this myself whenever the computer fan rattles in the case). In a survey sponsored by Statistics Canada, over half the respondents report that the introduction of technology has made their work more interesting. Another report notes that “women experience working in the new economy with an exhilarating sense of achievement, impact, satisfaction, and opportunity for creative freedom they didnâe(TM)t have before.”

And thus, because of these types of narratives, I am compelled to look deeper to explain women's experiences in the IT workplace. What I find is that IT work for women is complex and contradictory, neither wholly negative nor wholly positive. IT work can constrain and liberate, restrict and empower women. Women's situation in IT both reflects and challenges norms of women's role in the labour force.

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