Sex in tech

John Ross ex­plores the blokey cul­ture that con­fronts fe­male grad­u­ates

The Australian - The Deal - - News -

WHEN Jane*, a se­nior man­ager in a con­struc­tion en­gi­neer­ing firm, vis­ited a col­league’s of­fice re­cently to tell him she had made progress on a ma­jor con­tract, she was as­tounded at the re­sponse. “He pointed out the win­dow and said, ‘Thank you very much. I’m so happy, I could take you over to that build­ing and f . . k you’.” It’s an ex­treme ex­am­ple of the blokey work­place cul­ture high­lighted last month when cricketer Chris Gayle flirted with a fe­male sports jour­nal­ist on air. But a new re­port sug­gests such at­ti­tudes are a big­ger prob­lem in the tech sec­tor, with al­most a third of fe­male pro­fes­sion­als plan­ning to leave in the next five years – largely for cul­tural rea­sons. The sur­vey by Pro­fes­sion­als Aus­tralia, which rep­re­sents en­gi­neers, sci­en­tists and other tech­nol­ogy ca­reerists, found that the male-dom­i­nated sec­tor was at risk of be­com­ing even more lop­sided. Re­spon­dents com­plained of bleak ca­reer prospects and in­flex­i­ble work­ing con­di­tions ex­ac­er­bated by a per­va­sive ma­cho ethos. Chief ex­ec­u­tive Chris Wal­ton cites the case of a fe­male sci­en­tist who com­plained to man­agers af­ter her male lab su­per­viser claimed first au­thor­ship billing on a re­search pa­per, even though she had done most of the work. “She de­scribed how they were look­ing at her breasts for most of the meet­ing,” Wal­ton says. “When that was raised at a later meet­ing by the HR peo­ple, the ques­tion was – ‘Well, what top was she wear­ing?’ ” Wal­ton says this type of overt be­hav­iour is wan­ing. But “un­con­scious bias” is far more in­sid­i­ous. “It might be that no one thinks twice that ev­ery­one in the video was a male, or the cus­tomer al­ways looked at the bloke,” he says. Al­most 40 per cent of the re­spon­dents to the sur­vey said they felt they had to be­come “one of the boys” to fit in. More than 30 per cent said tech­ni­cal ad­vice was less likely to be taken se­ri­ously if de­liv­ered by a woman. Kim El­lis, a min­eral re­searcher, lawyer and space sci­en­tist, says a fe­male man­ager who chas­tises a male sub­or­di­nate risks a back­lash. “You get com­ments like ‘you sound like my wife’ or ‘don’t nag’ – in­ap­pro­pri­ate things to be say­ing to a su­pe­rior.” En­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer Ar­sala* says the boys’ club cul­ture is “cel­e­brated” in her adopted state of WA, where male col­leagues rou­tinely dis­par­age her in front of oth­ers. “They as­sume you don’t know any­thing,” she says. “I’m like, well, you hired me – what’s the point? I’m not cheap.” Jane says blokey cul­ture forces women to squan­der their own skills by tak­ing their at­ten­tion off the job. “Sixty per cent of my time is spent hav­ing to be aware of what shoes I have on, how tight my out­fit is, how I’ve done my hair. What’s go­ing on among the guys that they want or don’t want me to hear? It’s just con­stantly hav­ing to man­age all of that. When I walk into en­vi­ron­ments where be­ing fe­male isn’t rel­e­vant, sud­denly I can work at 100 per cent.” Pro­fes­sion­als Aus­tralia’s Wal­ton says the prob­lems are sys­temic as well as at­ti­tu­di­nal. He cites the field of sci­en­tific re­search, where grant ap­pli­ca­tion suc­cess de­pends on a con­stant record of pub­lish­ing, so peo­ple who take parental leave – women, mostly – are au­to­mat­i­cally shunted back to square one. Wal­ton be­lieves women in the tech sec­tor are fac­ing the prob­lems fe­male lawyers en­coun­tered 20 years ago. “Some sec­tors are very un­re­con­structed,” he says. “It’s a fac­tor of num­bers. When women are in the mi­nor­ity it’s hard to get change. When the num­bers flow through as is hap­pen­ing in sci­ence, with women grad­u­ates now in the ma­jor­ity, there’s im­mense pres­sure as the work­force and lead­er­ship are out of kil­ter.” Nev­er­the­less, Wal­ton says it would be sim­plis­tic to blame tech work­place cul­tures on bosses. “It’s our mem­bers do­ing it to other mem­bers,” he says. But Jane dis­agrees, say­ing the CEO sets the tone. She cites her own com­pany where, when one of the few fe­male pro­fes­sion­als re­cently took ma­ter­nity leave, the boss qui­etly in­structed her not to re­cruit an­other woman. She says the main ob­jec­tion to women in the com­pany of about 5000, where just three se­nior man­agers are fe­male, is that their pres­ence sti­fles rib­ald repar­tee. “The ‘C’ word is the cul­ture,” she ex­plains. “It’s like say­ing hello.” Wal­ton says it’s rel­a­tively easy to change such be­hav­iour with guide­lines, poli­cies and laws. But chang­ing at­ti­tudes is harder, and chang­ing in­ad­ver­tent dis­crim­i­na­tion – where the cul­prits are not even aware it is hap­pen­ing – is harder still. He says the is­sue will only be dealt with when tech-sec­tor lead­ers recog­nise it as a busi­ness prob­lem – an idea ad­vo­cated by for­mer sex dis­crim­i­na­tion com­mis­sioner El­iz­a­beth Brod­er­ick. “When a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion and their skills are not be­ing best utilised, it’s a busi­ness risk,” Wal­ton says. “In ar­eas of skill short­age, that’s mad­ness.” * “Jane” and “Ar­sala” asked that their real names not be used in this ar­ti­cle.

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