Digital Business Analyst, Ian Hunter MBCS, responds to a recent event on women in IT, namely BCS’s Women in IT Question Time Debate, hosted by our friends at Zurich in Fareham, who proved to be excellent hosts for an evening of stimulating discussion and debate.

You may have noticed several new initiatives for women’s networking events, not only in the workplace, but also in your local community. It’s important that any group of people can express themselves in a safe environment.

If you foster a culture of inclusivity, the wider community should become stronger as a result. Therefore, as a male IT professional witnessing an increase to the number of advertised events related to women working in IT, I wanted to show my support for female colleagues across various industries, and to learn about viewpoints which may not have been visible to me previously.

To start my journey of understanding, I read various articles, attended a Q&A networking event, and spoke to a number of colleagues (both female and male). It’s been an eye-opening experience and, in sticking with the theme of a safe environment, I want to share some of my initial thoughts and observations.

How are people to progress, if they are not able to be truly honest with each other?

As I listened to the opinions from multiple women, I was inspired by the passion they shared whilst discussing their experiences. And that’s a key point - a lot of what was discussed was based on actual experience and not mere speculation. A lot of women feel there are a wide variety of issues to be resolved on a professional level. This article is in no way intended to dismiss the opinions of others, but instead is about reflecting from a different perspective.

Equality in the workplace

If you ask yourself ‘Are women seen as equals in the workplace?’ what is your gut instinct? For me, the answer was ‘yes’. Growing up as a teenager in the 1990s, perhaps it was the right time. In my career to date, 16 of my previous 26 managers were women. Four of the nine managers I’ve had in my six years within business change and IT are female (so approximately 44 per cent).

Were the female managers in leadership roles because of their gender? No - or at least, I don’t think so. I believe it’s because of their skills and knowledge, their contributions, and their personalities. All of them have had a level of confidence and all, regardless of gender, have overcome a variety of obstacles to get where they are today.

I had never previously experienced women advising they are currently mistreated or less able to progress in the workplace because of their gender. Any mention of inequality has always related to historic circumstances. This is not to suggest that equality isn’t a current issue. Conversation has led me to believe, it often relates to industry.

Some of the discussions I’ve now been a part of, have included very strong views, which have come as a bit of a surprise. Some women have expressed they are not currently seen as equals in the workplace, and this is something they feel has applied to their entire career.

It was suggested to me (by a woman) that women who manage to achieve managerial positions in technical roles, and who didn’t take the ‘standard, men straight out of university route’, should be celebrated - and even more so, when they move into a role that was previously held by a man.

I absolutely believe in celebrating people’s achievements. However, I believe that gender shouldn’t define whether or not a person is capable as a leader in an IT role. Taking a role from a man doesn’t necessarily imply extra credit is due. It means the person who achieved the role, was deemed to be the most suitable person for the position. If the woman had taken the role from another woman, would I have heard this example in the same way, with the same element of success?

Another scenario is from conversation with a woman who feels her skills and knowledge are not trusted in her work environment. This individual has an impressive wealth of experience and has done very well for herself in her career. However, she didn’t understand why she is sometimes presented with doubt when expressing her professional opinion. Her belief is it is because of her gender, but I questioned this (respectfully).

In fact, this person is relatively new to her current organisation, with the bulk of her experience having been gained elsewhere. Even in an environment where trust is implicit, true trust can take time to blossom. Is it just male colleagues that show her doubt, or does she work in a male dominated environment?

As a man, I have encountered occasions where my opinion has been questioned despite my experience. However, this subsides over time, when I have had the opportunity to evidence my capabilities. I want people to accept the content of my CV, but not everyone has read it (certainly most of the people I work with haven’t) and, in reality, people evidence their suitability beyond interview, whilst on the job.

This is one of the reasons we have probation periods. Where does the assumption come, that the reason for the doubt is because the person being questioned is a woman? Can anyone be sure that in current times, men are not also treated in the same way? Again, perhaps industry is the issue, but is there more to it than that?

Are we still living in the past?

‘Girl power’ is nothing new, although perhaps it is more celebrated now. Women have made major contributions to science, technology, and society throughout history. Undoubtedly, women have had a lot to overcome thanks to many archaic views and regulations, but are we still there now? Someone once told me that the longer I hold on to the past, the longer it will stay with me. If I keep reminding people how things used to be, will people focus on that rather than on appreciating how things are now, and the achievements that have been made?

Is it possible that the women who feel they are being treated as ‘less than’, are remembering previous times and not recognising that times are changing too? If they are stuck in a position where they are being mistreated, are they not strong enough to take control of their destiny? Of course they are - the same as anyone else. Being a woman does not mean being weak. However, any person who has felt mistreated for any period of time may find it difficult to find the best way to resolve a challenging situation.

Circumstance is a tricky thing and everyone knows that sometimes change is simply not easy to accommodate. This isn’t about giving up and finding something else. A person may be in their ideal industry and location. They shouldn’t feel pressured into finding another role. Creating change in an industry where there are known issues must seem like an incredibly daunting task, so what can be done?

Moving on

I guess I want to reassure any females who feel belittled by men in the workplace that this isn’t something which applies across all industries. It certainly isn’t perfect everywhere, but there are many places where the women will advise that they don’t face issue with this, and there are a great many men who are not only on your side, but who will willingly support you if you so desire.

I’m not suggesting you need it, but I would urge you to remember this when you discuss issues about equality in your networking groups. In the same way that you don’t want men to tarnish you all with the same brush, remember that not all men work in the same way either.

I’ve witnessed various comments such as ‘women should receive...’ and ‘women should be treated with...’ etc. Whilst this may be the case, ask yourselves if something you want only applies to women. In the past, there was a time when it was men who acted to ensure entitlements for themselves, and this resulted in some of the inequality being faced today.  Would this have happened if the men were more inclusive at the time? Don’t become the thing you’re striving to overcome.

If you believe women should be given a better reintroduction to the workplace after maternity leave, ask if the same can apply to men. Why restrict it? Perhaps any person regardless of gender, who has been on any kind of long-term leave, should receive a better reintroduction to the workplace. If you believe women need more work / social engagements because they don’t fit in with the ‘blokey pub lot’, ask yourself if all the men in the office attend these kinds of ‘sessions’ and if there are other people who would be interested in an invite to something alternative.

Becoming part of a networking group (or creating your own) is a nice way to share experiences and find positive solutions to challenging problems. You could work within a fixed gender or open the group to ‘allies’. Not everyone will see the need for women’s networking groups, but I’ve learned these people should be grateful to work in a place where the issues are not prevalent to them. It doesn’t mean issues do not exist.

It may be that the issues facing women relating to inequality in the workplace will naturally dissipate over time. Now that more women are taking on technical roles for their career choices, things will undoubtedly look very different in twenty years. I’ve gone from being someone who didn’t realise the issues existed as much as they do, to being someone who is excited to see how the issues can be resolved.

Whilst it’s getting ahead of things, I see great potential for women’s networking groups to spread internationally (what?!). Yes, it’s true. Inequality for women is certainly a large issue in some other countries and although I’m sure many of these places will have local networking groups, how amazing would it be for initiatives starting out here, to lead to supporting our international colleagues as well?

Closing thoughts

As a man, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about writing this article. The last thing I want to do is offend anyone and much of this is new to me. Many men are still brought up to walk on the side of the pavement closest to the road when walking with a woman. Whilst some views are archaic, some are obvious attempted signs of respect. Not everything you find patronising in the workplace will be born out of that intent. Ultimately, the onus should always be for us all to foster a culture of inclusivity, and the results should be stronger for it.

Panellists at the event:

  • Adam Thilthorpe, BCS Director of Professionalism
  • Michelle Shakesheff, Business Analyst Manager, Zurich
  • Lisa Woodall, Head of Strategy, Architecture and Governance, Zurich
  • Maria Bridgman, IT Programme Manager, Specsavers
  • Saffron House, Senior Business Analyst, Ordnance Survey