Friday, January 21, 2005

The Other Digital Divide

Rational Technology column for January 23, 2005.

Over the past week, there was minor tempest in the local IT community. It stemmed from the Philippine Computer Society's "Digital Pinay 2005" competition. The promotional description for the contest promised to "search for the woman who best exemplifies the qualities expected of future women leaders of the Philippine Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry."

Such a search would otherwise be considered exemplary of enlightened thinking were it not for the entry form that asked for candidates' height, weight, bust, waist, and hip sizes. Further reading of the criteria of the contest revealed that participants would be judged 40% for intelligence and 60% for popularity, beauty, and personality.

It didn't take too long for people in local IT -- both men and women -- to raise a hue and cry over the competition. What, they asked, did a woman's vital statistics have to do with her qualifications as a leader in the IT industry? As of this writing, the organizers of the contest beat a hasty retreat, admitting that someone had goofed on the criteria.

Why were the objections so strenuous? People working deep in technology generally pride themselves on egalitarianism and a meritocracy based on skill and intellect. Sex, race, creed, and financial status ought not to matter, and by and large, in the technology community, they don't. Holding a beauty contest and representing the winner as a paragon of the IT professional runs contrary to these ideals, and is in fact a great step backwards.

Having been in the IT industry for over a decade, I've interacted with women working on technical and managerial roles. Among them: systems engineers, network architects, kernel module developers, applications programmers, support engineers, and technical managers. On the whole, they have been as competent as their male counterparts, and sometimes more so.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that they were the same as men; our brains are wired differently, and correspondingly, our responses and perspectives are also different. But that only made my working experience all the richer.

Yet it's also true that the gender ratio in the technology industry is skewed towards men. Unfortunately, there are no Philippine-specific studies that validate this, so I can only base it on personal experience. Discounting positions in sales, management and education, men outnumber women 3-to-1. Why is this so?

There was an old saw about boys being geared early on towards engineering and the sciences and girls towards softer disciplines, and that this affects the education they pursue. With the ubiquity and accessibility to technology over the past ten years , this is largely irrelevant for the budding generation of engineers and scientists. But if it was true in the past, then this would have some effect on the ratio of the current crop of mid-level and senior technical executives.

A more tangible hurdle are the issues which continue to affect women in the workplace. Extraneous demands on women are different from the men, and sometimes more stringent. Somewhere along the line, women are confronted with the choice between career and family. The decisions sometimes affect the prospects for advancement. This is a very real problem, but it doesn't have to be.

With the proper support structures in place and with technology as an enabler, it's entirely possible to stave off the false dilemma that is thrust upon them. For example, a network architect or test engineer, using the Internet to collaborate with her colleagues, could benefit from a work-at-home program, thus allowing her balance her work with family duties.

A more insiduous problem, I think, are the misconceptions around technical careers. Complexity breeds specialization and it's quite likely that gender division will once again rear its ugly head here. Justified under the label of a technical career, women could in fact be locked into the fringes of the technology industry. Call center agent comes foremost to mind here.

All these factors lead to precious few positive role models for women in the technology, thus making it more difficult to attract more women into technical careers. I say the industry is the poorer for this. It's a vicious cycle that needs to be broken and soon. To do this requires positive action at the core of the problem: in education, in career management, and in visibility.

And that's more than what a beauty contest or the cover of a technology magazine can provide.


  1. Dominique,

    Everyone, male or female, could benefit from a work-at-home arrangement. : )

    Tita Harvey

  2. Amen to that, Tita. And with DSL and other forms of broadband today, that's so possible.

    Thanks for dropping by!