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Overcoming the IT Gender Stereotype: 3 Tips for Women

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CEO Sarah Lahav gives her advice on how to clear the hurdles facing women in computing.

By Sarah Lahav (CEO, SysAid)

In the British sitcom The IT Crowd, character Jen Barber becomes the head of IT at Reynhold Industries despite having no tech knowledge whatsoever.

In a famous episode, Jen’s two male IT co-workers trick her into believing that “the Internet” is a little black box with a red LED light. They go so far as to convince Jen that the “Elders of the Internet” have given her the honor of bringing “the Internet” to a shareholder meeting where she is to give her employee of the month speech.

Although it’s entertaining, the sitcom plays on a real stereotype: IT is a field for geeky men, and most women, like Jen Barber, are not tech-savvy.

If you’re a woman in IT, at some point you will run into this gender stereotype and others. Here are three tips that will help you overcome them.

Stand Out

The Jen Barber stereotype in IT is not intentional and malicious. In large part, it’s a byproduct of an age where women are underrepresented in computing roles.

In the United States, a 2009 report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) found that the percentage of computing positions held by women had declined from a high of 36% in 1991 to just 26% in 2008—even though the percentage of women in almost all others sciences had increased significantly.

In other words, if you’re a woman and you develop top IT skills, you will stand out to recruiters.

When my company SysAid posts an IT job opening, very few women apply, but they all catch our attention. If you’re dedicated to IT, you can be more competitive in the job market than your male counterparts.

Speak Up

In 1995, I began my career in IT support at Iscar Metalworking, an Israeli company acquired by Warren Buffet in 2006. I was the only woman in the IT department. In 2004, I joined SysAid, a provider of IT service management software, as employee number two and the company’s first tech support representative. I worked my way up through the support department and customer relations team to become CEO in 2013.

By the time I was VP of Customer Relations at SysAid, I’d been on the front lines of IT for many years. However, I still ran into the Jen Barber prejudice. For instance, when I attended a series  of conferences with a male co-worker and conversation with attendees turned technical, every question was directed towards my co-worker — even though he actually had less experience than me.

I didn’t ignore the problem. Instead, I discussed it with my co-worker and asked him to allow me to answer technical questions even if they were addressed to him. By speaking up, I created the space to do my job and demonstrate my knowledge. From then on, I also challenged the assumption that my male co-worker had technical knowledge that I lacked.

In IT, women sometimes defer to male co-workers because they’re afraid to make a mistake and confirm gender stereotypes. That’s a recipe for becoming obsolete and perpetuating stereotypes. Do not give up your voice.

Look For Mentorship

What most women in the IT world lack is support and mentorship. Network through your university, your company, IT conferences or even social media to connect with women who have gone through the challenges you face.

Talk to your mentor about specific situations and recurrent issues you experience in your work environment. For example, if you think you’re supervisor is giving men all the technical assignments and leaving you with breezy work, talk about how to change that pattern.

The tech-savvy “IT guy” and tech-illiterate Jen Barber stereotypes will not disappear anytime soon. As “women in IT”, we will feel extra pressure to prove our technical skills and stand up to the biases that surface in our day-to-day work. However, by overcoming the stereotypes in our work environments, we can gradually provide the world with a new image of “women in IT.” As a community, we can support each other and strive to become role models for rising women who share our passion for IT.

Have you experienced gender stereotyping in the world of IT?

Sarah Lahave HeadshotAbout the guest blogger: As the company’s 1st employee, Sarah Lahav has remained the vital link between SysAid Technologies and its customers since 2003. She is the current CEO and former VP of Customer Relations at SysAid – two positions that have fueled her passion for customer service.