Sep 17, 2012

Paddling against the wind

By Teresa Torns, professor, Department of Sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

If Steve Jobs had been a woman, that woman would have been an excellent student, since that was the essential passport to being something more than a good mother and wife. Given her good grades in mathematics and her interest in computers, perhaps she would have chosen to study engineering. But arriving at university saw her encounter some unexpected surprises. Firstly, that of discovering that very few girls had joined her in her choice, with most of her classmates being boys. Secondly, the absence of female teachers. Small disadvantages that dispirited her, given that she would rarely be able to talk about the issues of interest to a girl, like her, whose life was organized and designed exclusively by ICT. The overall memory of those years is that the university environment was too boy-friendly; an environment that she learned to overcome with a survival strategy of invisibility which included concealing her excellent grades.

However, these grades were what got her her first job in a company in the technology sector; a job that she did not hesitate to accept, even though that was the moment when the surprising of the young student doubled. This was mainly because the excitement of landing her first job soon vanished when the working conditions and her salary were not what she was expecting. In the beginning, she blamed these disappointments on the crisis that was affecting her country, but she soon suspected that perhaps that was not a very good explanation. Colleagues with inferior academic records who endured such drawbacks because they were juniors had, after the first five years, a better professional career, more recognition and a better salary.

«At university, a female Jobs would have encountered some unexpected surprises, such as the scarcity of female classmates and the absence of female teachers»

After consulting with a few specialists, she relaxed. She learned to put a name to what was happening to her. It was the glass ceiling, a form of employment discrimination that affected women who were professionally best-placed, particularly female engineers in the field of ICT. So she realised that what was happening to her was nothing unusual and she was able to think of new and better solutions. In the short term, there was no need to increase her availability at work, putting her relationship at risk, as well as her plans to be a mother again, and even her health.

The best thing would probably be to change jobs. She would look for a company that used the potential of ICT to support teleworking. Or she would explore the possibility of becoming a web-based professional, so that she would always be able to combine her everyday life with her knowledge and capabilities. She was lucky to live during the age of the internet, where it was said that everything was possible. Thanks to the blog she had created during her first maternity leave, she had heard about the project launched by “Les Pénélopes” which, using ICT, offered support to immigrant women employed in informal sectors.

«She would have suffered the glass ceiling, a form of employment discrimination that affected women who were professionally best-placed, particularly female engineers in the field of ICT»

Colleagues had told her about the shortages in long-term care services. Perhaps she could explore the organisation and management of these services through an internet application and offer it to social healthcare companies. Or perhaps she could start a consultancy to promote the use of ICT among rural women. She knew about the existence of the digital divide. Perhaps she could increase ICT use by bringing the possibilities it offered to the daily needs of those women. She would only need to persevere and be optimistic. European statistics from She Figures 2012 show how, between 2002 and 2012, the proportion of female engineers and technologists employed in the public sector had increased, for the first time. She would just need to forget about surprises and get to work.

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