Thursday, 31 December 2009

Futures 1: Women In IT

We're on the cusp of a new decade. I've been allowing myself to think creatively about the ways in which people aspects of ITSM may change in the coming years. This is important, because as alluded to in some of my earlier blog entries below, the direction in which we are heading (values, principles etc.) is equally as important as the everyday tools, processes and technology that we use to do our jobs. I hope this stimulates thought and discussion. Oh and Happy New Decade!


University of Sussex campusI often sing the praises of the multi-disciplinary education that I received at the University of Sussex in the early 1990s. I 'majored' in Social Psychology but was required to take extra courses based on the focus of the faculty that ran the major. I was located in the School of Social Sciences, therefore I was offered and took 'minor' units in politics, history and sociology amongst others. All of these courses were interesting, but the work that I was most proud of was an essay examining eating disorders. As this issue affected (and still affects) mainly women it opened up a whole new literature for me: feminism. I read Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue (which I didn't really take to) and countless other feminist critiques of male society which I found myself fascinated by.

A particular sentence that I read for this essay left a lasting impression upon me. Frustratingly, the author and title of the book eludes me. I've even retrieved the old essay and can't find the reference, I can only guess that it was a quote contained within Chernin (1986), Orbach (1979;1984) or perhaps Fallon, Katzman & Wooley (1994). This sentiments initially irritated me but I subsequently came to realise that it was in fact brave, hopeful and futuristic. The female writer said something like: 'why should we aim for mere equality with men, we can be so much better than that'.

I eventually understood this to mean that the way society has been organised (let's face it by blokes) has left  a great deal of room for improvement. Therefore, perhaps a new female-inspired approach to organising life, society or even the workplace may offer an alternative and even improved paradigm through which to create the future. This, I thought, was pretty wow. During the related seminars I attempted to create an analogy between this futuristic feminism and my analysis of the history of jazz which was something that I felt that I understood. In my view they both describe how novel and perhaps desirable alternatives to the status quo can be created by subjugated sections of society who are forced to develop new ideas due to exclusions from the dominant discourse.

Yes of course I shall explain.

Some have said that the only original artform that has come out of America is Jazz. While that statement is open to dispute, the fact that it's a novel and critically appreciated recent form is undeniable. So how did jazz come about? Well there was a sub-section of society in the US (blacks) who in the 19th and early 20th century were mainly excluded from the mainstream, and their musical contributions generally thought to be of lesser worth when assessed from the viewpoint of the dominant paradigm. However one of the advantages of this state of affairs was that this situation allowed them the freedom to develop a unique artform as they were not encumbered by the need to appeal or conform to the dominant or the mainstream ideas (Hobsbawn, 1990). By the time mainstream America discovered jazz it was a fully developed, novel and exciting new form that was embraced with gusto.

Feminist thinking - certainly in the 1970s and 1980s - created a discourse of an alternative. It may be less so today but women were for many years excluded from the power kabals that ran organisations and society. Many demanded equality and sought to ape male methods in order to gain a share of that power. Others (for example the unidentified female author of the quote I offered in the first paragraph) called for a feminism that sought to be better than the flawed male structures that were percieved to exist. This feminist call for better  may also offer an opportunity to create a new and better paradigm for workplaces - and perhaps particularly ITSM workplaces. Why?

Firstly, because IT is still a very male dominated industry, a recent e-Skills survey indicated the male to female ratio was in the region of 88% to 12% (e-Skills, 2008); and thus unlike other industries where women have already formed considerable fractures in the glass ceiling (e.g. media, publishing, arts) there may still be much scope for gender-driven change in IT. Secondly, technology is no longer the preserve of the male, anorak-wearing geek. The internet, iPods and mobile devices mean that females are now equal in their enthusiasm for technology use as males (I live with a 16 year-old stepdaughter; I see what happens when the internet is down or the mobile telephone has been lost). Thus this may reduce cultural barriers to greater numbers of women entering the industry. Finally there is evidence of (perhaps socially constructed) gender differences in approaches to management, service and process. This could be the 'better' that female paradigms might bring to service management leadership.

There is always a fly in the ointment, grit in the machine or urine on the bonfire. One worry is that it's too late; that there is no longer a separate feminist alternative. The dream of a better tomorrow through a new female paradigm may have faded into a demand for the 'mere equality' that the feminist author spoke disparagingly of. Furthermore it may be that many of those women seeking equality may be trying to crack the glass canopy with male tools. Indeed some imply that women who adopt the masculine approaches to management do so with greater gusto than many men; the Margaret Thatcher effect. If this conjecture is accurate, then an influx of female leaders into ITSM may be more problematic than helpful to the cultural outcomes of interest here. Yes we'll be closer to gender equality, but for those on the ground (both female and male) it will mean more of the same. I mean is there still a separate female culture and identity?

However, recent qualitative work such as that described by Learmonth (2009), seem to indicate that something about the historically or socially constructed norms of women is still different and therefore may be able to help us create that alternative. Situations such as that recounted in Learmonth's paper allow the hope to persist that the coming decades could bring a gender-inspired challenge to the 'big man' leadership in IT, and may begin to spell the end of the mindset which blinds us from valuing leaders who aren't cut from the masculine / sporting hero / military background cloth. Selection is one of the key factors that influences culture, therefore a different type of leader may help produce a different type of culture. And with the numbers of IT people I've heard calling for 'culture change' recently then I'm sure that you'll agree that this is a good thing.

If I may be honest I don't get too exercised about differences between people be they socially constructed, biological or otherwise. However I find feminism exciting in this context because a differntiated female culture may well exist and may be immediately available in our workforce. This is exciting because it could offer workers in ITSM a Tom Peters-style bold-stroke of a change that may lead to staff perceiving a greater sense of well-being, autonomy and vision in their work, and which would help to move IT away from the taint of 'dysfunctional outsiders' that still hangs around us,. So regardless of whether you are male or female, that's got to be a good thing. Right?


Chernin, K. (1986) The Hungry Self: Women, Eating & Identity.

e-skills UK (2008) Technology Counts - IT & Telecoms Insights 2008. London: e-skills UK. Retrieved July 21, 2009, from the e-skills UK web site:

Fallon, P., Katzman, M. A., & Wooley, S. C. (1994) Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders

Hobsbawn, E. (1990). The Jazz Scene [First published under the pseudonym F. Newton in 1963]

Learmonth, M. (2009). 'Girls' working together without 'teams': How to avoid the colonization of management language. Human Relations, 62, p1887-1906

Orbach, S. (1979) Fat is a Feminist Issue

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