Sex in tech
John Ross explores the blokey culture that confronts female graduates
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.