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Nerd Girls take on 'sexist' industry

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Matthew Hall

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Just an hour into the opening session of IBM Connect in Florida and Kathy Brown let out a sigh. Company executives and Hollywood actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt were singing the praises of social media in the workplace but, for Brown, something just wasn't right.

Then, in plain sight, it hit her. The images on the stage's backdrop. She was blunt on Twitter: "2 Female 'characters' on background. Both wore skirts and one had a pink phone. Really!?"

Later, she tweeted: "Make that 3."

And then: "Finally a woman shown in pants. Tight ones. With her ass facing the crowd."

“That's not how women have to be depicted," said Brown, an IT consultant and Lotus and BlackBerry developer, the following day.

“I'm not saying don't have a woman up there [on screen],” she added. “I'm saying just think about it. Is this making the women look like they don't know what they are talking about?”

A member of Nerd Girls, a networking group for women who work with IBM's Lotus software, Brown is encouraging change in the way women are perceived across the industry.

According to the group, women in IT face challenges that are in your face, alternatively subtle, or barely noticed by anyone except those on the receiving end. Yet they are real.

Francie Tanner, a technical director for software company Panagenda, said she'd been mistakenly identified as a “booth babe” when attending conferences.

“The individual stories are all the same,” Tanner said of her female colleagues. “Being the odd man – or woman – out. We have to try a little harder. We have to show up and sit down in the middle of the boys and say 'Here I am.'”

Gabriella Davis runs a London-based IT consultancy with her husband. At client meetings she's been mistaken for a note-taker rather than a potential project's lead contact. The “assistant”, it turns out, is often her husband.

“Men [often] find it very uncomfortable to see another man working as my assistant,” Davis said. “[Being female] does require having a level of confidence that a lot of men don't need to have. You cannot doubt yourself. You cannot for one second think you are not the authority in the room.”

It's important to note that IBM announced Brown, Tanner and Davis as “champions” at this year's Connect conference in Orlando, Florida. Their industry authority is as real as some of the misperceptions about them. The Nerd Girl network formed in 2008 at an IBM Lotusphere event when conference organisers – women – noticed the gender split and encouraged the group's development by inviting the women to host sessions and panels.

The group now exists through LinkedIn and Twitter and hosts Skype chats. It has seen the end of booth babes at conferences (exhibitors at the event signed a contract banning the use of models) and witnessed Nerd Girl merchandise prove popular among male and female attendees.

“It doesn't take much encouragement,” said Davis. “Nerd Girls is not about gender, it is about celebrating differences. Just be fair and not diminishing and demeaning.”

Other groups work tirelessly to motivate women to take up and stay with their IT career choice, including Girl Geek Coffee started in Australia. It runs meetings in Canberra and other cities.

Last November, the chief of Australia's agency for Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace, Helen Conway, said technology firms needed to do more for women. She said the industry also needed to combat the popular perception that it offered a working environment that, while not actively hostile, could be tacitly unwelcoming to women.

The New York-based writer attended the event in Florida as a guest of the company.

60 comments

  • This is the sort of laughable 'lets read something that isn't there into it' hand wringing I expect from The Daily Laff, not the IT column.

    Sad.

    Commenter
    Lazy Jesus
    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 2:52PM
    • agree!
      employees more interested in causing a ruckus over their interpreation of an image than doing their job.

      what notes and comments did she provide on the overall substance of the talks? Anything?

      Commenter
      david
      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 3:17PM
    • You just read the first few lines and then wrote a comment, yes? Because the bulk of the article covers some very prominent issues in the industry. Ones that need to be discussed and hopefully eliminated.

      Everywhere I look at male-dominated industries, such as automotive and tech, I see both explicit and implicit sexism, all of which only serves to hold women down and contribute to a less cohesive, diverse and interesting industry. Industries are better when women have equal representation and can feel free to contribute, knowing they'll be respected. Let the guys dominate and all you get is the same old guff. Just look at video games; run by men, and look what we get - almost nothing but FPSs and third-person action games. And an audience of barely literate man-children who believe the world is made for them. Equal representation and respect is the way to go, and people like you with trite comments do nothing to help.

      Commenter
      Chris
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 12:12AM
    • Can you please tell everyone about your extensive experience as a woman in the tech industry so we can all understand 'something that isn't there'.

      Commenter
      Smoolander
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:00AM
    • It's neither laughable nor non-existent. It's real, though sometimes subtle enough that only the targets of it notice. This is exactly the kind of "assumed" behavior that needs to be called out by Nerd Girls everywhere (and Nerd Guys, too), or else it will never change. Bravo Kathy! (and Francie and Gab!)

      Commenter
      Bob Balaban
      Location
      Massachusetts
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:06AM
    • I couldn't even read the whole article. Thank yourself you have a job young lady.

      Commenter
      Schaden Freudian
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:19AM
    • Okay, do a youtube search for sexist advertisements of the 60's. Now, look at those advertisements from IBM, then look at what she's talking about, seeing something that is not there is probably an accurate description.

      I'm not denying sexism exists in the industry, but what the? OMG GIRLS IN A SKIRT? PINK PHONE! SO SEXIST!

      Commenter
      John
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 9:16AM
    • @Chris. I'm gathering you don't actually work in IT because your comment doesn't remotely reflect reality. IT is one of the few industries where there's very little room for discrimination. Why? Because if you make a mistake in IT it becomes very apparent very quickly because things stop working and systems go down. If you make a mistake in another industry (say accounting) you can often fudge it later on. There's no way to "fudge" a system outage that impacts 10000 customers. The result? Everyone knows who the smart ones are and who they're not. I've worked in IT in large corporations for 15 years and have NEVER seen sexism against women. The two smartest engineers that I know in my company are female. They're quite frankly smarter/harder working than me and save my bacon frequently. Added to that, they're simply nicer than most men. Not as macho and more likely to help others. I'd be happy to see them promoted above me as would most of the other males in my workplace. I constantly hear about sexism in the media but I honestly just never see it. I suspect the disparities in incomes simply come down to taking maternity leave and putting kids first. Not necessarily a bad choice for a woman. I often wonder if I shouldn't make the same choice myself.

      Commenter
      JamesM
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 10:22AM
    • My thoughts on this, summarized by someone else - http://futurewomanintech.com/

      Commenter
      Francie
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 11:03AM
    • I'm the only girl in my IT class. I'm not in the IT working field as yet and know that there are heaps of successful females in this industry. I was disappointed to see that I was the only female...what's going on girls? It's articles like this that freak people out.

      Commenter
      Deadliest_catch
      Date and time
      March 02, 2013, 8:55PM

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