'Man up': What should women in IT really be fighting for?

By Peter Gothard
25 Jul 2014 View Comments

There's an irony as to how the actual, very important discussion of equal rights and gender balance in the industry has become "the women in IT debate".

It's an argument often hijacked by PR houses and money-men sensing a commercial opportunity.

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Many round tables and conferences will come out with the same answer: we just need more women in IT. Why? "Because it's fair and we must fight for it."

But surely it's about so much more than this. The exclusion of any one group - be it on gender, sex or racial terms - is holding back technological progress for generations ahead, not just for the time it takes to pen a bylined blog. And it's with this weighty angle Computing sat down with Louise O' Sullivan, CEO of Anam Technologies.

"I don't like to think of myself as a feminist at all, because it has so many negative connotations," says O' Sullivan.

"The danger in all of this is seeing the argument as coming from a negative point of view, with this image that an assertive woman is bossy and a bitch, and I think so much of it is just associated with perception: that just needs to change."

But O' Sullivan says, while women are just as capable of making these assumptions, the fact is that technology itself is the fulcrum on which the IT industry can get a step ahead of gender debates in other areas of life and business.

"Obviously [technology] is embedded in the future generations - using communications, computing and technology is just a way of life. So the next generation has no concept of this not existing in their lives. And therefore, I think it's a bigger conversation than just delivering devices to the market - it's part of culture," she states.

"At present, it's almost like you're being told, 'man up' if you want to be in IT," says O' Sullivan.

"They take this ballsy approach, and you have to talk like them, and it's all about the bottom line... and of course these things are important, but it doesn't mean I have to be in a suit and speaking the same as every one else."

Entrenched "old boys' network" thinking is a pretty hot topic at the moment, as the prime minister desperately tries to "fem-up" his Cabinet as accusations about all sorts of sexual unpleasantness in Westminster in the 1970s rage around him

If a cultural change is coming as a matter of social evolution, IT is indeed a powerful place to capitalise; technology now exists to let anyone - male or female - begin working for their own agendas, and not necessarily have to join a regime that values this "bottom line" over everything else. Why join a world of powersuits and promotion in the field for whoever shouts the loudest?

"I think there's an opportunity for deconstruction, definitely," says O' Sullivan.

"Minecraft [the videogame], fascinates me, for example - it's one of those technologies where you're not trying to get to the next level or point, it's about creation and survival. It's about giving the users tools to figure something out for themselves."

This game, which makes over $250m in revenue a year, can be seen as a representation of technology being used in the most modern of ways - give people the technological blocks, and they can build anything. IT is no longer beige boxes - it's about empowerment.

The American Association of University Women did some research into the ways males and females use technology, concluding:

"Women interviewees were more likely to state that they saw the computer as a tool for use within a larger societal and/or interdisciplinary context than did the men interviewed. On the other hand, men were more likely to express an interest in the computer as a machine."

In a world burgeoning with data science, social media analytics, and plug-anywhere cloud CRM platforms, women in IT don't just have to want to become Meg Whitman anymore. The possibilities really are wide open.

"I think we're underestimating what people will be doing in 10-15 years time, and I think it's important that this technology will be taken back by the people who need to use it," says O' Sullivan.

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