Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/09/16/ms_quiet_women/

MS shuts up on number of women engineers

Yes, no, maybe...

By Mark Ballard

Posted in CIO, 16th September 2005 13:05 GMT

Microsoft has once again fallen back on a discredited privacy defence to deflect questions on the proportion of its certified engineers who are women.

Last month, Microsoft told El Reg that it would try and work out how many women had qualfied as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers.

The vendor has now clammed up on the issue, issuing a written statement citing data privacy concerns and refusing to answer further questions. But there should not be anything to be embarrassed about. It is indeed likely that a small proportion of the 1.7m certified Microsoft professionals in the world are women. This is usual for an industry in which around 20 per cent of IT workers are women and most of them are stuck in lowly jobs.

Debbie Ellen, a British academic who has been putting pressure on Microsoft over its gender policy, said Microsoft UK's previous diversity manager, Suzy Black, had told her she was looking at whether contracts with certified examiners Pearson Vue and Thomson Prometric could be renegotiated in order to oblige them to collect gender data.

It is understood that examiners and trainers do not collect gender data intentionally and that this makes it impossible to tell how many engineers are women. Microsoft cannot confirm whether contract negotiations are still on the table. It has previously said both that the data does and does not exist.

It since emerged, thanks to a Register reader, that the MCSE section of Microsoft.com requires .NET passport registration, which requires gender to be given. Does that mean the data might exist? Again, Microsoft remains schtum.

There are other indications that the data could exist. Microsoft sources revealed to InfoWorld Australia in 2001 that of 10,000 MCSEs in the country, just 326 were women.

Ram Dhaliwal, Microsoft UK manager for training and certification, said in a statement last week that knowing how many MCSEs are women was not as important as having employment policies that support them, such as "flexible working policies" and "good career opportunities".

Yet statistics about the numbers of women are necessary to formulate such policies and see if they are working, said Ellen. As the numbers of women working in IT have fallen proportionally by a quarter in the UK since 1997 the statistics suggest policy is not working.

Further, statistics can identify where the problems are. If, say, 10 women attend a certified training course, three take the exams and only one ends up taking a job as an engineer, it may be that the training is not working for them.

Ellen had sought Microsoft's gender data to see how successful standard training programmes were compared to a women-only scheme at getting women into the industry. Without the data, a proper assessment cannot be made, though it is increasingly thought that women fare better on single-sex training courses where they are not suppressed by overbearing, often sexist, men - the launch this school term of Computer Clubs for Girls is a case in point.

Dhaliwal also pointed to the work of Microsoft diversity manager Bronwyn Kunhardt in tackling the gender issue. While Kundhart has shown her commitment to the cause she is, by her own admission, charged mostly with addressing gender equality within Microsoft. The sub-contracted certified training regime and the army of certified engineers all fall through the net.

Dhaliwal's statement repeated the previous excuse given by Microsoft over its apparent ignorance of the gender issue.

He has left an opening, however. Instead of saying, as before, that data privacy laws prevent Microsoft from revealing how many MCSEs are women, he now says data privacy concerns may suppress the revelation.

"There are 1.7 million Microsoft Certified Professionals worldwide and it's vital that their confidential information is handled with the respect it deserves and that the impact of decisions affecting data collection and release are weighed very carefully," he said in the statement.

Dhaliwal and Kundhart are now understood to be reviewing what data they can reveal. Yet the longer Dhaliwal sticks to the privacy defence, the less credible his position looks, particularly in light of the Information Commissioner (Britain's custodian of data protection) discrediting Microsoft's story.

Incredulous of the earlier privacy defence given her by Dhaliwal, Ellen sought advice from the IC. The IC said, as you would expect, that statistics do not offend data protection laws. This was the official response Ellen got from the IC on 30 March 2005:

"Personal data is defined in the Data Protection Act 1998 as data which relates to a living individual who can be identified from that data. It follows therefore that Microsoft Learning would not be in contravention of the Act if they provided you with the general number of certificates held in the UK nor would they be in contravention if they provided you with this data broken down by gender."

Ellen forwarded the IC's email to Dhaliwal and Kundhart on the day she received it. She asked if this changed their position. Though she had previously been granted enough of their time to learn of their privacy defence, this time she received no response.

Now we can join the club.

When Microsoft does comes out from behind the wholly unnecessary barricades it has erected, we can only hope it will have found something valuable to add to this debate, like how few women MCSEs there are. The fact that there are so few may illustrate Microsoft's lack of care about this issue in the past. Now that Microsoft evidently does care (of course it does, or it would not have lent its public support for CC4G, would it?), perhaps it can tell us what it is going to do about it.®