Discrimination Fabrication

This may not be the most popular column I’ve ever written, but someone has to say it. It is high time for the chronic, self-perceived victims of the IT world to stop complaining, learn relevant skills and get to work.

I’m talking about two groups in particular. The first is women who insist on being treated as a special category of worker because of alleged endemic discrimination against women. The other is composed of certain segments of the 40-year-old-plus programmers and other professionals whining about age discrimination in IT.

The woeful tales of rampant gender and age discrimination would be compelling and interesting if only they were true. The fact is the sooner we stop singling out women and "old" workers as being special -- in need of breaks or preferential treatment others don’t get -- the quicker fringe prejudices and discriminatory behavior are likely to dissipate. Only when people in the workplace stop thinking of themselves as pawns and see the IT environment as it actually exists, will individuals continue to make real progress.

What is the chief characteristic of the IT environment in the U.S. today? It is the same as it was yesterday and the same as it will be tomorrow and the year after that. It is an environment starving for good, qualified people. More so than any other discrete labor market. The U.S. unemployment rate is just north of 4 percent, and the unemployment rate for qualified IT professionals is a small fraction of that. In such an environment, discrimination simply has little chance of taking root.

Let’s first look at gender discrimination in the IT workplace. One trade publication runs a regular column whose authors are fond of pointing to examples of gender discrimination in the IT workplace.

One recent column began with the writer getting depressed by "all the studies showing that girls are avoiding computer science courses and steering clear of technology." While it is true that female enrollment in high tech programs are down slightly, maybe its because women are simply choosing to enroll in other endeavors. Isn't that what the women’s movement was all about, freedom of choice?

The gender discrimination charge would be disturbing if it weren’t for facts getting in the way. The research of author and consultant Paul Strassmann, who once ran the biggest IT department in the world -- the U.S. Defense Department -- shows there are 5.6 million more women than men in what he calls the information workforce. He defines this as being made up of information-dependent executives, managers, professionals and sales and administrative personnel.

Further, Strassmann’s work reveals that as of three years ago, women had achieved parity in their numbers with men in higher-paying managerial and professional jobs. This suggests that women are choosing not to go into IT but are instead migrating to jobs where information is a competitive tool, but not an end unto itself. What’s wrong with that?

Last month the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute released results of a poll of 450 female executives. A whopping 92 percent of these successful women said they did not have to meet higher standards than men to reach the top;84 percent said that being a woman did not impede their ability to be leaders.

How about our graying IT workers? Are they being routinely passed over for jobs just because of their age? A lot of them think so. Four in 10 managers polled by Computerworld last year believed age discrimination is part of the fabric of the IT workplace.

Again, the facts get in the way of an ingrained perception. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains unemployment in the IT professional category for people up to age 44 is under 1 percent. As people get older, this rate does rise, but not as much as you might think. For IT workers in the 55 to 64 year old bracket, unemployment is less than 5 percent.

I have no doubt that the chief reason for this unemployment rate gap can be traced to older workers who have not refreshed their skills rather than workers being consciously and capriciously discriminated against. The Y2K work even gave the hardcore COBOL jockeys a reprieve from irrelevance, but that won’t last. If older workers who are expert in older technologies don’t refresh their skills and retune their technical expertise, others will get hired and you won’t. It has everything to do with skill, not age.

I know, I’m a white-male-bully picking on women and old people, even though the old people are my age and I don’t consider myself old at all. But in an industry where employers are hunting for talent in the alleys and high-tech sweat shops of the third world, employers and managers can ill afford to discriminate. And for the most part they absolutely do not. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.