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Women in IT: ‘If you want to be taken seriously, dress like a man’

Our troubleshooting engineer on beating the boys at their own game

Photo by Heather Sorenson / sxc.hu

Comment I am female, and I work in IT. I’m not in sales or in management; I am a systems engineer on a team that maintains and supports critical systems for an international, multi-billion-dollar company. I fight the fires, troubleshoot the issues and design systems.

So much has been written about the need for more women in IT, but I’ve yet to come across an article that accurately shows what it’s like to be a woman in the trenches like me. IT is a tough industry regardless of whether you’re a man or woman. You work long hours and on-call shifts. This is our job; it’s what we do. But it can be even tougher as a woman. I don’t represent the voice of all women in IT, but I wanted to share the experiences that I’ve gone through to help shed some light on what it’s like.

Career-changing advice

When I entered IT more than nine years ago, I knew the job requirements and what was expected of me, but I was naive about how being a woman would affect people’s perception of my abilities. Reality hit me on my first job as a junior network admin, when my new manager asked me why I wanted to be in this industry. He told me I was the first woman who had worked for him, and that I shouldn’t be surprised by people’s reactions to me.

And he was right. I often heard comments like, “Oh, you’re a girl. We normally see guys fixing computers.” I would reassure customers that "yes, I am a girl, and I could fix problems just like the IT guys". Several months into the job, that same manager gave me advice that would forever change my career.

“If you want to be taken seriously in IT, you need to dress like a man,” he told me.

"Wow!" I thought to myself, “I’m not being taken seriously already? Did my clients think I was joke?”

He told me that standing out was a distraction and customers would judge me less on my looks and more on my skills if I toned down my appearance. We talked about keeping my hair pulled back and wearing more neutral attire like the rest of the guys on the team. I took his advice: I traded my heels and Ann Taylor outfits for Gap khakis, button-down shirts and comfy Clarks. I was an IT guy now; I was one of the boys.

I’m sure many of you reading this are wondering why I didn’t report him to HR or why I would take his advice. To be honest with you, I wanted to be successful in my career. I was young, and I looked up to him, so if changing my look would help, I figured it didn’t hurt to try.

I wish I could tell you his advice was all wrong, but I can’t. Very soon after I stopped wearing makeup and started dressing more like man, I noticed a change in people’s interactions with me. I got fewer comments about what a surprise it was to see a woman in my role, and people started to ask me advice on IT topics. I established myself in this new career and it felt good. I was doing migrations, setting up servers and PCs, and running around like a chicken with its head cut off, all with a good ol’ Blackberry on my hip holster. The boys’ club prevails...

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