Firstly, a caveat/disclaimer (as usual) - both events were useful,
thought-provoking and overall worthwhile. But the alarming thing to me
was the number of times I heard "boys are…" or "women think…" or "girls
prefer…". And I know we often make generalisations to stress a point,
but I'm becoming extremely wary of statements that group people together
along some arbitrary boundaries.
- "Google+ failed because it's
design by men for men" - no, it's because it's not designed for anyone.
Its only purpose was to compete with Facebook.
- "Women are better at
communicating and social activities" - what, all of us? I'm better at
communicating than every man I've ever met? Than someone like Obama or
Steve Jobs or John Stewart?
- "Women do better with female
role models" - where are the statistics? And do men do better with male
role models, or do they do better with female role models too because
women are so much "better at communicating"?
I'm not saying these statements aren't ever true. I'm not even saying
they're not true "most" of the time (although I want to see proof). But
any kind of strategy based on gross generalisations had better take
into account the fact that these are generalisations, that they are
based on Statistics1(and sometimes not even those), and that they frequently correspond nicely to things we'd like to think or we are trained to think.
Humans are great at categorising. It's a survival skill - "yummy",
"warm", "safe", "funny coloured = hurty tummy", "things with sharp
pointy teethies like to eat me". Without this skill we wouldn't have
made it as a species. And marketing people, who have to use psychology
to get us to part with our money, understand this. They identify trends
and target their shinies to these trends (Yuppie
, Baby Boomer
etc). By identifying these groups and aiming at them, they make them
real. And since humans are a clan-based society, who (again for
evolutionary reasons) need to fit in with their gang, these groups
become aspirational. Essex people drive BMWs and wear white stilettos?
I don't and I live in Essex, oh no! I'd better get on that right away,
otherwise people will see I'm An Imposter.
So when people go around saying "Women are great at communicating", we
believe it. Those of us who are a bit sucky at it or maybe don't care
about it wonder if we're aliens
Or we believe we're great at it because we should be, and we don't work
at improving our skills. Men are terrible at cleaning? Great! I
don't have to clean the toilet! Women's minds aren't programmed for
engineering because they're more communicaty than logical? Fine, I'll
teach physics instead of using it.
If I hear one more person say women don't do well in IT because they
prefer more soft-skill-based roles, I'm going to scream. In that case,
why are there more women entering accountancy than men? In that case,
how do men ever get to manage people, and why does pair programming work
If I hear once more that men put women off these roles because of the
macho male environment, I'm going to drag that person through a tour of
every office I've worked in - I'm constantly disappointed that my male
colleagues enjoy football even less than than the girls I went to school
So, using stereotypes to try and address things like gender disparity in
IT is not going to work. The men in our industry are not
beer-swilling, football-watching, womanising alpha males. So why, when
we talk about the missing women in our industry, do we assume they will
be pink-obsessed, fashion-conscious, gossipy socialites who only hang
around with other women? Do you even know any women like that? This is
not Desperate Housewives, this is Real Life.
Really good marketing people don't target people as they are - no-one
wants to be considered poor - you're a bargain hunter or great at
identifying value. Similarly, if you want women to use your product or
work for your company, you don't target to weight-obsessed,
soap-opera-watching, child-caring fashionistas. Instead you target how a
person wants to be seen. You might say using your product or working
for your company makes a person look smart, savvy and awesome. And who
doesn't want to be all of those things?
Saying people in IT are sexy and intelligent and earn loads of money and have oodles of job options and can find work globally might
be a compelling story for people. Some of those people might even be
women. Some of them might even be the other missing minorities
Thinking in stereotypes can be damaging to everyone. Gender stereotypes
in both directions are so sweeping they are unhelpful, you can't
categorise fully half of the world's population as one thing or another.
I hear men doing men a disservice by saying things that aren't even
true for themselves, and the same for women. It's something we're
trained to do, and something the media loves to do. But it's wrong.
So the next time you find yourself saying "men prefer..." or "women
are...", stop and think if this is actually true for all of the men and
women you know. And if it's not, just don't say it.