The Challenge of Gender Bias in the IT Industry

Peter Bednar & Andy Bissett


There seems to be no obvious reason why a gender imbalance should exist, yet this phenomenon is evident to all who work in and around the Information Technology field. From training and education through to practitioners, managers, and academia, women are in a significant minority, and tend to receive lower remuneration on average than their male colleagues (Panteli et al, 1998).

IT and its associated industries have become a highly significant contribution to economies around the world. Everywhere predictions are being made that IT will provide the catalyst for new economic growth which will revitalise older industries and that new and unimagined synergies will emerge. Internationally there is an ever growing advocacy of emerging technologies and changes in organisations which in combination with globalisation, environmental and ecological issues are viewed as having major economic impact in the new global community (Giddens, 2000).Yet the gender imbalance so evident in many sectors of public and economic life is replicating itself even in the new ‘sunrise’ industry. Doubtless this gendered compartmentalisation is in part a reflection of wider (male biased) social and technological issues; perhaps it is exactly because IT has been accorded such significance that women are not equally represented in these high-earning ‘plum’ roles. It is a striking contradiction that a field to which women have made such notable contributions (Leeming, 1996), and whose sole requirement is human brain-power, should so little reflect the abilities of 50% of its potential workforce and end users.

We begin with some brief empirical observations to illustrate the gender imbalance. A typical entry point into the industry is examined – the education process; subsequent sections highlight the gender imbalance within the industry, in terms of a large UK bank (Lauener, 1999), and in terms of membership of professional bodies (Prior et al, 1999).

We go on to ask: what are the effects within the industry of this imbalance? If women are under-represented in the IT industry, then many aspects of the industry will be subtly influenced. There is some evidence, for instance, that the ethical outlooks of male and female IT professionals differ (Bissett & Shipton, 1999). A second outcome to be influenced concerns the nature of the artefacts themselves that are produced by this far-reaching industry. If these are produced in a certain way by a certain kind of person, what are the effects for those of us who are not included within that specific social alignment (Green et al, 1993)?

There seems to be very little evidence that equal opportunity programs have had the wanted impact. However, as Giddens (1984, 1991) suggests it is still possible and meaningful to create and design a future life space with the aim of solving different social and cultural problems. No doubt if the industry could make itself more attractive to women, then more women would wish to study computing. But this is not the only problem: another main dimension has to do with ‘gender ignorant’ theories and practices. A naive understanding of information systems, organisational theories and practices might inhibit a more adequate and progressive understanding of the gender dimension. Worse still, the issue of how innovation is introduced (in this most innovative of fields) is suggested to have an impact on the degree to which it causes unequal consequences (e.g. Rogers, 1995, p.435).

The IS discussion needs to take into consideration and support a greater awareness of gender issues and their potential organisational and social implications. When engaging in efforts to help individuals to combine their (work and family) roles to advance organisational change and benefits, gender strategies become increasingly important (e.g. Haas et. al. 2000). Also, given that IS research practice has often treated gender issues as being either non-existent or non-relevant in the IS arena, there is a need to expand our field to include gender strategy. Some ways forward such as Contextual Analysis (Bednar, 2000) are briefly outlined.

Finally, research about unequal distribution of power might start out with general power issues that apply to women and men alike (although any serious study of unequal power distribution would call for a look into possible gender issues). Several of the arguments put forward in this paper would also be valid for effects of unequal power distribution in general. This would include unequal power distribution in such a context as the development and use of IT artefacts for socially distinct groups, e.g. between young versus older people, blind or deaf persons, and so forth.


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