Are geeks driving women away from IT? LiveScience thinks so and has a study to back it up. Different industries have different cultures and I can certainly believe that geek culture is off-putting to a lot of women. Indeed, the article cites it as a possible reason for the gender disparity within IT. Some people are tempted to chalk up the disparity totally to biology. While biology may play a role, I think that’s a mistake. Part of the decision of what to undertake a career is who you will be spending time with. Any workplace dominated by people of a particular persuasion, including gender, is likely to be less hospitable to people that break the mold. This is true in groupings outside of gender and also true in both male-dominated and female-dominated work places. And it’s true in male-dominated work places of the blue collar and white collar varieties, though it can be true for different reasons.
It all brings to light the question of whether or not it’s true that geek culture drives women away from IT, which I think is true, and more importantly the question of what can be done about it. On that point, I think the answer is “not much.” To my great relief, the article suggested at the end that the issue may not be the geek objects that were putting off the women but rather the female perception of the objects. Change the perception and you can make headway on the issue. There’s nothing inherently masculine about a lot of it. My response to that is… “You’re absolutely right… but good luck.”
Changing cultural perceptions of Star Trek or gaming systems is not a particularly easy task. Particularly since, for reasons pertaining to biology or something else, it really is guys that are interested in these things. But that’s not all that’s at issue here. It’s not just that it’s “masculine” stuff. Indeed, I would question if it qualifies as “masculine” stuff because they tend to be associated with the sorts of guys that are, shall we say, not masculine in the testosterone-addled traditional sense. A World of Warcraft poster and a New York Giants poster send two different messages. While it’s possible that women will be off-put by a work place dominated with either of them, my guess is that the former is more off-putting (and not without reason).
In its own way, anti-geek discrimination makes sense. Women that don’t want to work with geeky guys would do well not to work at places where desks have Warhammer figuring collections n them. It’s one of those cases where a message is sent and a message is received.
Which brings me to my fear when I read articles like this (sans the last few paragraphs). If it’s determined that the problem is the “masculine” objects and the solution is not to change the perceptions of these objects, I’m afraid the solution will be to kill the messenger. In this case, I mean “take down that poster!” That’s honestly where I feared this article was heading.
There are reasons for a workplace to ask its employees to keep office decorations to a minimum and I guess that’s fair (depending on the reason). Further, there are things that no office should allow because they will be perceived as offensive or distasteful by even quite reasonable people. My fear is that where this is all headed is a bridging the two concerns into something that that makes my stomach turn. The notion that decorations that are merely off-putting will be considered a special light sort of offensive. In other words, in order to please hypothetical women that might be interested in IT, pressure will be applied to sterilize the workplace. Not of all decorations, but of ones that might be off-putting to the hypothetical women. Realistically, the result will be curbing office decorations as a whole.
I see this as problematic not because it isn’t an employer’s right to do so, but honestly because I don’t consider it a particularly good idea. It’s one of those things that gives comfort to petty little management exertions of authority. Allowing employees to wave their geek flag allows the employees you already have to feel more comfortable. Forcing them to take that flag down saves the company not a penny and favors potential employees that don’t exist over the ones that you are relying on to contribute to your bottom line.
Further, even if you force geeks to not fly their flag so high, all you’re doing is taking away the signaling mechanism. They’ll discover that they work with a bunch of geeks eventually. In fact, it probably won’t take long at all. So consider the anime scroll on the wall something like Truth in Advertising.
Except the coke cans. You can make them toss those.