In IT professions, diversity is all about inclusion, not exclusion

Quelles sont les bonnes pratiques à adopter pour l'inclusion des femmes dans les milieux technologiques ?

Ideas about diversity are often fallacious. Sociology has shown that women are seen as being responsible for their own inclusion in places where they are a minority. Chantal Morley is conducting research in this field at Institut Mines-Télécom Business School. She is especially interested in diversity in technological fields, whether they be companies, universities, engineering schools, etc. In this interview for I’MTech, she goes over the right approaches in promoting diversity, but also the wrong ones. 


You suggest that we should no longer approach the issue of diversity through a filter of exclusion, and instead through inclusion. What is the difference?

Chantal Morley: This idea comes from seeing the low impact of the measures taken in the last 20 years. They are aimed at women solely in the form of: “you must keep informed, you have to make an effort to be included”.  But men don’t have to make these efforts, and history tells us that at one point in time, women didn’t have to either. These calls and injunctions target women outside working spaces or territories: this is what we call the exclusion filter. The idea is that women are excluded and should solve the problem themselves. Thinking in terms of inclusion means looking at practices in companies, discussion spaces and education. It is about questioning equality mechanisms, attitudes and representations.

Read on I’MTech: Why women have become invisible in IT professions

In concrete terms, what difference will this make?

CM: The reason women do not enter IT professions is not because they are not interested or that they don’t make the effort, but because the field is a highly masculine one. By looking at what is going on inside an organization, we see that technical professions, from which women have long been excluded, affirm masculinity. Still today, there is a latent norm, often subconsciously activated, which tells us that a man will be more at ease with technical issues. Telling women that they are foreign to these issues, through small signs, contributes to upholding this norm. This is how we have ended up with a masculine technical culture in companies, schools and universities. This culture is constantly reinforced by everyday interactions – between students, with teachers, between teachers, in institutional communication. The impact of these interactions is even stronger when their socio-sexual nature goes unquestioned. This is why practices must be questioned, which implies looking at what is going on inside organizations.

What are the obstacles to diversity in technological fields?

CM: Organizations send out signals, marking their territory. On company websites, it is often men who are represented in high-responsibility jobs. In engineering schools, representations are also heavily masculine, from school brochures to gala posters produced by student associations. The masculine image dominates. There is also a second dimension, that of recognition. In technology professions, women are often suspected of illegitimacy, they are often required to prove themselves. Women who reach a high status in the hierarchy of a company, or who excel in elite courses, feel this discreet suspicion and it can make them doubt themselves.

What does a good inclusion policy involve?

CM: We carried out a sociological study on several inclusion policies used in organizations. A successful example is that of Carnegie-Mellon University in the United States. They were first asked to undertake an analysis of their practices. They realized that they were setting up barriers to women entering technology courses. For example, in selecting students, they were judging applicants on their prior experience in IT, things that are not taught in schools. They expected students to have skills inherited from a hacker culture or other social context favoring the development of these skills. However, the university realized that not only are these skills usually shared in masculine environments, but also that they are not a determining factor in successful completion of studies. They reviewed their admission criteria. This is a good example of analyzing the space and organization in terms of inclusion. In one year, the percentage of female students in IT rose from 7% to 16%, reaching a stable level of 40% after four years. The percentage of female applicants accepted who then chose to enroll more than doubled in a few years.

Read on I’MTech: Gender diversity in ICT as a topic of research

Once women have joined these spaces, is the problem solved?

CM: Not at all. Once again, Carnegie-Mellon University is a good example. On average, female students were giving up their IT studies twice as often as men. This is where notions of culture and relations come in. New students were subject to rumors about quotas. The men believed the women were only there to satisfy statistics, because they themselves had been conditioned by clichés on the respective skills of men and women in IT. The university’s response was a compulsory first-year course on gender and technologies, to break down preconceived ideas.

How necessary is it to use compulsory measures?

CM: There are two major reasons. On the one hand, stereotypes are even stronger when they are activated subconsciously: we therefore have to create conditions under which we can change the views of people within a group. In this case, the compulsory course on gender or the differentiated first-year courses enable all students to take the same courses in the second year, boost self-confidence and create a common knowledge base. The measure improved the group’s motivation and their desire to move forward. Cultural change is generally slow, especially when the non-included population is strongly in a minority. This is why we have to talk about quotas. Everyone is very uneasy with this idea, but it is an interim solution, which will lead to rapid progress in the situation. For example, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), another case of successful inclusion, decided to open additional places for women only. Along with a very clear communication strategy, this approach saw female student numbers rise from 6% to 38% in one year and saw the creation of a “community” of female engineers.  The percentage of women admitted stabilized, and the quotas were abandoned after three years. The issue of separate spaces is also interesting. Carnegie-Mellon, for example, launched an association for female IT student which it still supports. With help from the school’s management, this association organizes events with professional females, as women felt excluded from the traditional alumni networks. It has become the largest student association on campus, and now that the transition period is over, they are gradually opening up to other forms of diversity, such as ethnic.

Is there such a thing as bad inclusion measures?

CM: Generally speaking, all measures aimed at promoting women as women are problematic. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology is an example of this. In 1995, it launched an inclusion program attracting women by taking the “difference” approach, the idea that they were complementary to men. This program was statistically successful: there was an increase in the number of women in technology courses. Sociological studies also showed that women felt wanted in these training spaces. But the studies also showed that these women were embarrassed, the notion of complementarity implied that the university considered that women’s strong points were different from men’s. This is not true, and here we see the fundamental difference with Carnegie-Mellon, which attracted women by breaking down this type of cliché.

Since 1995, has this stance on complementarity changed?

CM: At the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, yes. After the reports from female students, the approach was largely modified. Unfortunately, the idea of complementarity is still too present, especially in companies. All too often, we hear things like “having a woman in a team improves communication” or “a feminine presence softens the atmosphere”. Not only is there no sociological reality behind these ideas, but also they impose qualities women are expected to have. This is the performative side of gender: we conform to what is considered appropriate and expected of us. A highly talented woman in a role which does not require any particular communication skills will be judged preferentially on these criteria rather than on her actual tasks. This representation must be broken down. Including women is not important because they improve the atmosphere in a team. It is important because they represent as large a talent pool as men.


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