Reflections on the IT Industry

Justin Wernick <>
Curly Tail, Curly Braces


These are a few systemic problems that are bothering me about the state of the IT industry.

Things are not OK

I was fortunate enough to attend DevConf last week. I had an amazing time, and added a whole pile of new things to read up on to my to-do list.

One talk that particularly stood out for me was the keynote by Terri Burns. I can't do her talk justice in a short paragraph here, but the general thrust of the talk was that it's very difficult to predict how people who are not like you will be able to interact with the software that you build. If you want your software to be accessible to everyone in the whole world, any who doesn't, you need to make sure that you cater for them. In practice, this means that you need to seek out diversity, and make sure that your software can meet a diverse set of needs. One of the best ways to cover more ground is to just have a more varied team of people working on your product.

Walking out of this talk feeling good about myself, I went to the expo floor of the conference. There, I found that one of the companies exhibiting had decided it was a good idea to put a QR code between the breasts of their female exhibitors. It was awkward for everyone involved when it was expected for conference attendees to point their phone cameras at the chests of these women.

The IT industry in South Africa has trouble with women.

Women in the IT space

Anyone who has looked at a few IT offices in South Africa will notice that men are over-represented, and women are under-represented. If we agree that having diversity in a team is good for the team to make products that are accessible to its users, then this is a problem. Women are likely going to be around half of your user base.

If you think about how to solve this problem on the highest level, there are two aspects to reflect on. The first is getting more women to join the IT industry. This is where groups like GirlCodeZA fit in.

The second is to convince more women who are already in the IT industry to stay. That's where I want to focus today, with the (surprisingly controversial) notion that we should be treating women in IT as well as we do men. This means taking their contributions seriously and valuing them as equal members of the team.

Whenever this comes up in conversation, there is an unfortunate group who want to believe that women are already being treated as well as men in IT, so my focus today is going to just be pointing out things I've seen and heard in a daily workplace context, across a variety of teams and a variety of different clients' offices, and why I think they are problematic.

"Bitches be Crazy" and other unfortunate jokes

I've heard plenty of sexist jokes in the workplace. There is one that particularly stands out in my memory. One male developer was giving another male developer a pain killer because he had a headache. "It's also prescribed for period pains, so maybe it'll also stop your bitching", he says.

As a rule of thumb, think what you're going to say before you say it. If you feel you'd then need to follow up by apologizing to any women present, just don't say it!

If you think your penis is important for your programming, you're doing it horribly wrong

I have heard a person in a leadership position assert that good female developers are as mythical as unicorns. This type of statement is unfortunately self-fulfilling. Firstly, you're not going to hire female developers because you don't think they're good, so you won't discover good ones. Secondly, if a good female developer does end up on your team, you'll end up dismissing their good work to avoid cognitive dissonance.

If you don't recognize someone's good work, you probably aren't giving them raises and promotions at the same rate as their male colleagues. If a developer has hit an artificial ceiling on your team, they will leave your team as soon as humanly possible.

Basically, if you don't believe good female developers exist, they will avoid working with you.

Since genitals are hardly ever useful for typing out code, I would argue that a random female developer and a random male developer are equally likely to be good at their job.

"Hey dudes!" and other language which assumes that the "IT guys" are all male

Just for reference, I did a Google image search for "guys". The first picture to feature a female was on the second page. On closer inspection, it had matched the search because it was a cover image for an article titled "The 15 Most Awesome Cities For Single Guys To Visit". In my opinion, "guys" is not a gender neutral form of address. Yet it's still strangely common to receive a mass email sent to a gender-diverse team, or to an entire company, which opens with "Hey guys!".

This matters more than it seems at first glance because of the psychology of in groups and out groups. Humans are wired to view the world in terms of "us" against "them". A childhood of schools having us stand in a line of boys and a line of girls have done us no favours here.

When you see people as part of your "in group", you give them the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong, you take their opinions on things more seriously, and they are more likely to get a positive performance review from you. Conversely if someone is part of your "out group", you're more likely to assume the worst and ignore their opinions. When a male colleague snaps over something trivial, he's "having a bad day". If a female colleague does the same thing, "bitches be crazy". This is not a good place to be as an industry.

Maybe if we were in a different situation and the IT industry already had equal representation between men and women this wouldn't be a problem. Given our current situation, a woman in IT is likely to have mostly male colleagues and managers, so using language which makes her an anomaly is problematic.

I am just one person, what can I do about it?

I would recommend starting by just reading and learning more. Facebook has excellent training videos on managing unconscious biases available here. Watch them, and share them around.

So here are some action points:

In the quest to make better software, that can scale to the whole world, it just makes sense to create a better, more diverse, IT industry.

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