You’d think that the small number of woman in tech careers would inspire unity and tolerance. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert explores why the opposite seems to be true when such strife in inherently irrational.
Gender-based discrimination doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense, especially in the IT sector. I suppose I could understand some element of it… if, perhaps, data centre support or code writing or project management was somehow entirely dependent on muscle mass alone. Then, maybe, everyone staffing the local IT department would be a weightlifter, a former Marine or a rugby enthusiast. Since that hasn’t happened, and since brainpower effectively eclipses pretty much every other attribute in tech work, the fact that we still have to contend with gender bias in our industry is ridiculous. It doesn’t make any financial, operational or logistical sense for a head of IT to cut him- or herself off from a huge group of qualified workers.
Yes, I said ‘herself’ in that sentence. No, it wasn’t the result of political correctness run amok, and it wasn’t a lazy mistake. I’ve seen quite a bit of female-against-female bigotry in technology departments. While it’s every bit as wasteful and as stupid as any other kind of bigotry, it’s also considerably move difficult to stop… for reasons that fascinate me.
You might suspect that this is an extremely rare phenomenon, isolated to a few stranded outposts – like honest politicians or deposits of naturally-occurring Californium. Thanks to all sorts of factors, the number of female workers in many IT departments is lower than you’d expect if gender wasn’t a factor. I’ve been in several companies where female workers made up less than 10 per cent of the team. You’d think, then, that the few female workers in the department might be strongly motivated to stick together – to overlook one another’s lesser points of disagreement in order to ally with one another against an overwhelmingly disproportionate gender divide. You’d expect that a workgroup with a 9:1 gender ratio would have a higher probability of misogynistic sleazebags, which would encourage their victims to close ranks and unify in opposition. You’d think that; I did. Oddly enough, I’ve seen exactly the opposite effect manifest in several companies: some of the female workers turned on their sisters-in-arms with a viciousness that’s hard to reconcile.
This wasn’t something that I was even aware existed when I started working. My first real job was in the Army back in 1987. Being young, gormless, and untrained, my only responsibilities were to (a) drive cargo trucks, (b) load and unload cargo trucks and (c) carry clinical supplies and patients back and forth to and from various tents whenever the aforementioned trucks were parked. It wasn’t much of an assignment, but it was where everyone in the company started out. Once you came back from medic school you’d get a real job and some other new kid could take over your truck.
In that outfit,  a squaddie’s rank and clinical expertise were more important than any other factors in determining the pecking order. My squad leader was a university student and advanced laboratory tech. No one in the squad ever gave her flak. Our platoon sergeant was a grizzled old infantry medic. No one dared talk back to him, either. The two of them were as different as night and day, but the both earned the same amount of respect. I never saw anyone cop an attitude toward either of them. You could argue that this was because of rigid military discipline, but that would be giving us far too much credit. Our medical company was made up of high school and university students with about as much grim fortitude as a clown college. In the two years that I was assigned there, I never saw anyone get chewed out, let alone disciplined. It was about as low-key as you could get and still receive an Army pay cheque. The squaddies freely cooperated because of their dedication to the clinical mission (and the promise of beer after final formation).
I told that story in order make this story make a bit more sense. The first time that I came face-to-face with female-against-female hostility occurred only three months after I’d left home to start university, and it caught me utterly unprepared.
This was the autumn of 1988, down in San Antonio, Texas. I’d met a local girl during new student orientation and we’d started casually dating. Let’s call her ‘Kim’. When the Thanksgiving holiday period came around,  Kim invited me to join her family’s traditional celebration in Houston. Since we were required to leave campus for the extended holiday weekend, and since I didn’t have access to a car or anywhere to go, I told her that I’d be delighted.
We had to wait until Kim got off-shift on the last night of classes before the dorms closed. By the time we got on the road it was pitch dark, the weather had turned cold and it had started raining heavily. Since it was Kim’s car, she drove. Since she was the only one of the two of us who knew where we were going, I didn’t much mind. Her old junker didn’t have a working radio, so I took advantage of the quiet to read some of my holiday homework.
About an hour outside of San Antonio, it dawned on Kim that she hadn’t filled up her car prior to us leaving, and we were running on about an eighth of a tank. We were deep in the sticks by then hurtling down the empty motorway in a 1970s Oldsmobile that was about a fuel efficient as a bulldozer.  After 20 minutes of peering into the gloom, we finally found a small services station near a motorway junction. I figured that everything was sorted and went back to my books.
I offered to go pump the petrol since Kim had been doing all of the driving. She snapped at me, reminded me that it was her car and made it clear she’d take care of all of her car needs herself. I agreed that since it was her car, we should play by her rules. I let her have at it. I remember hearing her work the ancient pump for quite a while, and then things got quiet. When Kim finally returned to the car 15 minutes later, she was red-faced and fit to kill. She waited until she was back in the driver’s seat with her back to the shop, and started shouting at me. I was… thoroughly confused.
It turned out that when Kim had gone inside to pay for her fuel, she’d decided on a whim to pick up a set of jumper cables. When she reached the till, however, the proprietor flatly refused to ring up the cables. The shopkeeper could see that there was a man waiting in the car outside, and declared that ‘my little woman’ (the shop-keep’s words) needed to get my permission before she was allowed to buy anything other than petrol. All this, apparently, because Kim was ‘just’ a woman. Kim explained this to me through teeth clenched so hard that I was afraid her jaw would snap.
I was gobsmacked. I’d grown up in a backwater town, but I’d never seen anything so blatantly sexist as that. I was afraid that I was about to become an involuntary accessory to a jumper cable based strangling, and my only other option was to walk the 50 or so miles back to campus in the rain.
I eventually convinced Kim to agree to play out the charade. I was aghast at being forced to paternalistically ‘allow’ her to buy her own jumper cables on her own charge card for her own bloody Oldsmobile. I tried to be nonchalant about it, but Kim’s sickeningly sweet ‘Ooooooh, tank woo, dah-wing!’ act nearly made me lose me my composure. In that moment, though, I saw the proprietor’s lip curl up in a sneer – it struck me that the woman wasn’t necessarily acting out of any sort of gold-old-fashioned gender role enforcement; she just wanted to knock Kim down a peg. Perhaps it was the fact that Kim was a young, pretty girl out on the road in her own car with her own credit card. Something motivated this woman to get downright nasty with a passing stranger.
I thought about bringing the topic up, then saw Kim’s expression. She was riding the line between crying in frustration and committing a violent felony. Discretion being the better part of valour, I made sure that we vamoosed. Expeditiously.
That wasn’t the end of the encounter, though. After ten miles of icy silence I suddenly got a broadside of blistering invective. I weathered the displaced rage for about 30 minutes, feeling like a silhouette target on the flamethrower range. Once I got a word in edgewise and asked Kim how prevalent she thought that sort of awful behaviour was. I hadn’t ever experienced anything like that before. I speculated that my ignorance could’ve been a result of having grown up in a sleepy little city, or it could’ve been because I’d joined a pragmatically egalitarian profession. Either way, I was struck by how condescending and arrogant the woman at the services had acted. I figured that it was a relatively rare phenomenon. Kim set me straight – after nearly driving us off of an overpass in incredulity. She spent the rest of the drive sharing painful stories with me about being treated like absolute dirt by other women at school, at work, and at social activities (including, of all places, the bloody Girl Scouts). I paid close attention, and asked as many clarifying questions and she’d allow.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that encounter at the crappy little petrol station sparked a life-long interest in deviant and incongruous behaviour for me. When we returned to campus after the holiday break and registered for Spring semester classes, I dropped some of my planned common curriculum classes and took Introduction to Sociology and a Social Psychology course instead. Those, in turn, led me down the social science path to an eventual degree. All because I wanted to understand the dynamics in-play in that peculiar late-night petrol station exchange.
Looking at the encounter objectively, it seems obvious that alienating a paying customer is a bloody stupid tactic for any proprietor, anywhere. This, however, had been a small business in a rural setting. Torquing off the few customers that were willing to stop and shop when there were newer and nicer places ten minutes down the road could doom the woman’s business – so why did she do it? It finally clicked for me during one of my Anthropology classes (‘Mexican-Americans in the U.S.’) after our professor gave a short lecture on the roots of minority-versus-minority conflict. He talked about the tendencies of oppressed groups to irrationally attack one another as a means of shifting the balance of power between them as its own form of zero-sum struggle separate from both oppressed groups’ struggle against the oppressor (in whatever form that might take).
That theory has proven to be darned useful for me ever since. Now that I know a bit more about how to spot this sort of self-destructive behaviour, I’ve been able to study it (and often interrupt it) in the wild. A lot of it has been very hard to examine because of the Hawthorne Effect.  Still, I’ve encountered enough examples to validate Kim’s belief that it’s a lot more pernicious than I’d originally suspected.
I’ve come across a lot of women who used their measure of institutional power to undermine, suppress, or dominate other women within their sphere of influence. Once I learned how to recognize what they were doing, I changed how I managed them. As a painful example, I had one manager working for me who couldn’t tolerate having any other competent females in her workgroup. Novice and useless ones? Sure; they were fine. Once a young woman started showing signs of basic proficiency, however, the shop boss would become an unbelievably abusive ogre towards the newly-useful worker. I meddled a bit in the shop and seeded a few ‘ringers’  into the shop. Sure enough, you could see the supervisor’s attitude warp and sour towards the new woman within hours or days of the new hires demonstrating their proficiency.
When upper management, HR and EEO wouldn’t support disciplinary action against the abuser, I had to surreptitiously start transferring her junior females out of her shop and into better jobs. Since I couldn’t fix the bully herself, I did my utmost to make things right for the people that were suffering under her. I loathe bullies and fiends, and this one was an Evil Bob in her own right.
To be clear, this isn’t a problem unique to women; men can be just as guilty of it (sometimes more so, especially in some unique industries). Unprofessional conduct, abuse of power, and bigotry have been and will remain key attributes of awful leadership. You can also see variations on it occur on racial, ethic, religious and even – this is 100 per cent true – professional specialization lines. When one group of people gains domination over multiple smaller groups, elements from the smaller groups will often turn on one another as their target of choice rather than unify against the dominant body.
All that being said, what got me going on this rant was that we have the privilege to work in a career field where it should be nearly impossible to encounter gender-based discrimination because it’s extraordinarily easy to obfuscate a worker’s identity attributes (e.g. sex, gender, hairstyle, etc.) in distributed, multinational, matrixed and decentralized organisations. Once you get outside your floor of the office building, everyone else on the extended team should be a cipher – no more than a user ID with a unique skill-set. You’d think that this would make it much easier for leaders to judge people solely by the quality and quantity of their work. You’d think that workers of every possible human variation would find common cause and unity of purpose in pure engineering. You’d think.
People being people, there’s always something to squander resources over in petulant, pointless hate. It can happen – unless those of us holding a leadership role take swift, decisive action to pre-empt it by creating the sort of inclusive, fair, just and rewarding work environment that every worker craves and deserves.
 ‘That outfit’ being the illustrious 971st Medical Company (Clearing).
 In the USA, Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
 But nowhere near as easy to steer.
 In essence, people change their behaviour when they’re aware that they’re being observed.
 Proven talents who didn’t let on at first that they were as good as they really were.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.