WiT Experience: Undesirable Situations in IT

Alan Stevens recently wrote about sexual harassment in IT. Sadly enough, those things happen and not just in HR videos. I could easily see why more women avoid IT. These are just a few of my experiences in undesirable situations that weren’t necessarily harassment but would steer women clear of IT.

Insecurity and Hostility Early On

Right out of high school, I had an awesome internship – awesome in technical experience. I learned a lot about databases – including SQL Server and Oracle. That was my first professional experience with VB, after having played with it and releasing a freeware app. So it was nice to confirm that I was meant to work with tech.

But it also taught me that some guys can’t handle working with potentially successful women. The contractor I was working with, the DBA, and a programmer on another team were my angels in disguise. The guys in the cubes around me were great at exuding insecurity and intimidation – then again, this youngster could have been better than them at half their salary. But they weren’t welcoming, and I didn’t feel content there. There was one female programmer there near my cube, and the guys didn’t seem to take well to her either. They wouldn’t include her in their conversations, and they just didn’t treat her as an equal. It was tough to work in an environment where there were a lot of guys who couldn’t handle women in the industry, even when we thought we weren’t a threat.

I relished my time in the lab with the contractor, chatting with the programmer from across the office, and meeting the Oracle DBA. Those guys taught me a lot that would come in handy later on. But I learned that even when I’m learning, if I don’t feel comfortable in the environment, it’s best to just get out.

The Internet is for Porn… Everywhere

In college, I had a job doing desktop and lab support. Doing IT work in public labs, I knew I had to keep an open mind and brace myself for situations that I wouldn’t agree with it. I expected porn-ridden spyware in the labs, so I had some sort of idea as to what I was getting into.

However, my first experience wasn’t in the labs. One of the clients had called, and I was still new to the job – only a few weeks in. So the full-time desktop non-lab guy had me follow him on the call. When we opened the door, we walked into porn. The client was mortified and in the process of trying to close the window managed to get more pornographic popups. Being the IT professional, I kept a straight face and waited for him to close his windows, but inside, I felt sorry for the guy and had to hold back laughter from how comical it was to see more popups come up as he was closing them. The full-time desktop non-lab guy didn’t know what to expect, and apparently he was quite worried about me being exposed to this situation. We remedied the situation and headed back to our office. Once I realized I was out of ear shot of the client, I was able to laugh and let my co-worker know that I was fine.

That client learned not to look at porn at work, or so we thought. About a couple years later, in my last month with the guys (since I was graduating), we got a call. At that point, I was running lab and non-lab calls on my own, and I went to the lab to see what was up. Imagine the looks on our faces when the person who called in this case (the client from the last incident) saw that I was the one responding… and what popped up on the lab machine? Again he was mortified, and I just fixed the problem and walked back to my office. But when I told the guys, it was total disbelief – how could this happen again?

I personally was fine in both situations because I had prepared for the worst. I had read stories of the things people in IT have experienced, so I knew what I could run into. But at the same time, I knew that I could handle it – otherwise, I wouldn’t have taken the job. Some women, however, would not have been able to handle that.

What Part of “No” Don’t You Get?

This is the last of the undesirable situations that I’ve experienced that could steer women out of IT. I was on a well-balanced team of techs, training the rest of my team to be able to handle tougher calls rather than passing them all on to me. I had an awesome boss, who was able to teach me the company’s ways and who let me interact with the other departments without any issues. From there, I had the other managers looking out for me and showing the cool things going on in their departments and little tips and tricks for me to pick up so that I wouldn’t have to route calls to them as much. I loved learning a lot there, and I really enjoyed the people I worked with. Well… all but one.

Shortly after my first boss left, they hired this guy to replace her. I knew right off the bat that he’d end up having to rely on me to show him the basics of company politics. Being the one that he relied on for knowledge and know-how, I was not a target of his antics. He started hitting on the other ladies on my team, and they made it clear that they weren’t interested. But he just didn’t get it, no matter how much they told him “no”. The tension he caused was unbearable – and not just for the ladies. Towards the end, even the guys knew that something was up, and they came to me to find out what was going on. I was the one who encouraged the ladies to continue to tell him no, document the incidents, and stay strong. The guys on the team knew that they had to document incidents that they’d witness. Somehow, I knew that documentation would be key. While being there for my teammates, I still couldn’t let on to “the boss” what was going on behind the scenes. I could ask him to take a hint and tell him that maybe they’re just not interested. And it wasn’t that this guy just didn’t read social cues – he knew how to read them, but he just didn’t want to give up. Unfortunately, one of the ladies wanted so badly to leave, but she trusted me enough not to go and to fight it through.

Thankfully, the documentation and my strength carried the team through the situation. However, the situation wore on me emotionally and was tough to come down from. This situation showed me that I can lead from the trenches and be the strong one for my team. Thanks to the other managers and their teams for being supportive – that also helped carry me through. And to think, I wasn’t even a direct target! But this is yet another undesirable situation that would drive women from our field.

Final Thoughts

These are just some of the incidents that I’ve been involved in that could easily steer women out of IT. However, keep in mind that I’ve been working in IT in one form or another since right out of high school, over 10 years. These undesirable incidents are few and far between – I’ve had a lot more positive experiences with guys taking me under their wing, showing me the ropes, and encouraging me in the field and in the community. Although these undesirable situations may have distracted me or gotten me down, I haven’t let them push me out of a field that I love working in. My advice to women in tech after going through these – there’s always a chance of running into a jerk or a hairy situation, but honestly, these are few and far between and should not deter you from working in this industry. Stay strong, and make sure to have allies to help you through if you do find yourself in a tough situation.

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