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
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.
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...
How to stop the boss from giving all the fun work to the boys
There’s the cliché that all good things must come to an end, and my utopian life in IT was no exception. When I returned from maternity leave after my third child, the reality of being a woman in IT hit me. During the last few months of my pregnancy, I was put on desk duty, writing up quotes, becoming our licensing expert, and basically doing the “pre-sales” work.
I made sure that I didn’t fall behind on what was going on in the industry, but being away for six months (three at the desk, three on leave), you get rusty – and the added pressure of a new baby made it worse. I was behind, and I knew it. I was competing against young men in their early 20s who could work all sorts of crazy hours. All of the “fun” projects were given to my male counterparts, and I was left maintaining the desk with a little bit of technical work to keep me content.
This is where I failed and let the stereotype of IT being a man’s world carry on. I did not tell my manager that this bothered me until it was too late, and I had already started looking for a new job. I was doing what I had been taught to do since grade school: behave and sit quietly.
In the real world, that only goes so far, especially in a field that is predominantly male. When I left that job, I vowed I would never let this happen again. I knew what my capabilities were, and I was going to stand up for what I wanted in my career. I started to think back on what made me confident before, and the advice about dressing like a man once again popped into mind.
I thought about the meaning of this statement and then hit me. I had been behaving like a quiet, well-behaved schoolgirl, waiting for a teacher to praise me, while the men on my team were out being badasses. They were loud, playing with all the new toys without asking and breaking the rules. And their behaviour got them noticed.
Taking my former manager’s advice to blend in again, I decided that if this behaviour worked for the men, it could work for me. I continued to dress like a Gap employee, but this time I also vowed to stand out in my actions. If you don’t toot your own horn, who is going to do it for you?
Management doesn’t watch every move you make, so you need to be your own advocate. In my next job, with this new philosophy in tow, I had renewed confidence – and not only proved that I could do the job, but in most cases, do it even better than the boys. I quickly gained new and exciting projects.
A happy medium
Fast-forward to 2013, and you’ll find that I’m no longer the token "IT guy" female in the department. Instead, I’m the token "IT chick". As I’ve grown professionally and gained recognition from my superiors, I no longer hide behind khakis and polo shirts. I wear pretty shoes, paint my nails with glitter, and change my hair colour as often as Microsoft releases security patches.
It has been a long road, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It has made me a stronger person and helped me get where I am today. While you can say it’s unfortunate that I had to change myself to become one of the "boys" in order to be taken seriously, it is what I personally had to do to get to this point.
The truth isn’t pretty, is it? People can spin it anyway they want, but the fact remains: IT is a boys' club, with women making up less than 25 per cent of the workforce. If you want to work in this field as a woman, you need not only to be able to play with the boys, but also sometimes to beat them at their own games.
Once you’ve made it into the club, though, those boys see what kind of “IT magic” can happen when you’ve got Mars and Venus working together. ®
Phoummala Schmitt is a systems engineer who specialises in Exchange and Messaging. She lives in Pennsylvania. This article originally appeared on TrainSignal.com