Experts Exchange: Gender Neutral or Male Dominated?

Posted by · July 23, 2012 9:57 am

Regardless of whether there’s a pregnant CEO to talk about, the issue of women in technology is always a hotly debated issue. Among the topics discussed: How women in technology are viewed and how to get more of them.  A few weeks ago, however, I noticed another issue related to women in tech being raised on various blogs.  Instead of discussing how women are treated in the physical work place, this debate centered around how men regard female tech bloggers and how women are treated on web forums and Q&A sites.

The theses of these posts were that blogs, forums and Q&A sites are not female friendly.  The women writing the posts claimed that tech forums and Q&A sites in particular are male-dominated and thus women experience the following:

  • A one-upmanship between the (male) members that turns women off to participating on the sites
  • A feeling that they have nothing to contribute
  • A sense that their answers or comments are being ignored because they are female
  • A need to hide their gender lest they face discrimination or sexism

Since Experts Exchange is a technology Q&A site where many women participate regularly, I thought I’d ask a few of our top female experts about their experience as a woman in technology and their interactions with the men on Experts Exchange.  Here’s what I discovered:

Teylyn: What’s gender go to do with it?  

A New Zealand resident, Ingeborg Hawighorst started working in technology when she was still in college (or uni, as they call it over there).  She admits that she entered the field ready to lash out at anyone who questioned her technical ability because of her gender, but found herself pleasantly surprised by not only the deference with which she was treated by her peers but also by the number of other women employees and managers at her company.

“I found that the most technical guys were really very interested in factual discussions and mutual exchange of learning and skills,” Ingeborg says.  “The company I’ve been with for almost five years now hired me into a group that had seven women and one guy. I’ve moved on to different roles in the past few years and women were always a very prominent part of the personnel makeup. In my current role as a team leader in an IT function, most of my team are female. My boss is female. People of both genders come to ask me for advice and input. I have weak spots, but nobody has ever alluded to these being connected to my chromosomes.”

Her experience while participating in online communities for Excel was a bit different.

“I saw (or assumed) that most people who have a name in the Excel community are male, and I often had to correct askers that would post ‘Thanks, mate’ or ‘Good job, sir’ and set them right about my gender—and I was using avatars that (I thought) clearly showed that I am female,” she recalls.

That was four years ago, however, and since then, Ingeborg has been named a Zone Advisor and Most Valuable Expert at Experts Exchange and a Microsoft MVP.

The initial online confusion over her gender aside, she says that she in no way feels that as a woman it’s harder to get recognized or accepted in a technical community.

“It does peeve me a bit that people seem to think that a good technical answer must have been provided by a male, but I don’t pounce on people if they address me as ‘Sir.’ I might post a hint, but I don’t really want to come across as a harpie or suffrage gal. I just try to answer questions as well as I can. “

Alison: Gender is hardly neutral

As the president of InfoTech Services Group in Newbury Park, CA, Alison has worked her way up the corporate ladder—and worked with her fair share of men along the way.

“Being a woman in tech has been quite an experience for me,” she says. “Regardless of my apparent ‘stature’ in the field (she has written over 14 books on Microsoft Access and SQL Server and was recently named Microsoft MVP for Access), I have been subject to a lot of discrimination.”

Two stories in particular come to her mind:

“I was teaching a week-long class and one of the male students walked in, took a look at me and became visibly disturbed.  He sat down in his seat, crossed his arms and stared into space. A few days into the class, he seemed to lighten up and start paying attention. When Friday afternoon rolled around, he approached me and said, ‘I never thought I could learn programming from a woman. Boy was I wrong! I learned a ton!’”

The second story she recalls also took place in a classroom setting:

“I had traded classes with another (male) instructor, Paul Sheriff. When one of the men taking the class entered the room, he walked over to me and said ‘You’re not Paul Sheriff, you’re female!’  The entire week, the man looked disturbed. He gave me a very poor review and reported me to the company that I was teaching for as an incompetent instructor while the other students in the class all gave me superb reviews.”

According to Alison, these are just a few of the stories that she could tell about her experiences as a woman in technology.  When she joined Experts Exchange in January 2011, however, her experience with men in the technology world changed.

“Things have been completely different with the men at Experts Exchange. I am constantly given respect and praise. I am always shown appreciation for my time and effort. Quite honestly, most of the people that I deal with at Experts Exchange are men. Rather than this being problematic, it has been an absolute pleasure dealing with each and every one of them,” she says.

The gender-bending verdict

While Ingeborg and Alison have had very different experiences as a woman in the workplace, it’s clear that they both agree on one thing: Gender is not an issue on Experts Exchange.  As a female employee at Experts Exchange who interacts with the online community on a daily basis, I have found the same to be true.

When I started working here almost three and a half years ago, I knew next to nothing about technology.  While I know that many of the male—and female—members of the Experts Exchange community were at times frustrated with my initial lack of knowledge about the site and the tech space in general, the fact that I was a woman working in technology was never once mentioned.

Today, as more and more women enter the tech space, a site like Experts Exchange provides a rare and valuable resource for them to hone their skills—no matter what their level of expertise.  Other sites may recognize gender as a differentiator in skill level and even discriminate against the women who answer questions or ask for help on their site.  Experts Exchange, on the other hand, has long been a community that bends the gender lines that so often divide.

But don’t take my word for it, take Ingeborg’s: “Sometimes other people have better approaches and answers, sometimes mine are accepted. Gender has very little to do with it, as far as I’m concerned.”

  • DanRollins

    Missing from this post is a report on the most fundamental measure of “dominance” — the simple statistics reflecting participation levels. In my experience, there are about 30 males participating at EE for every female. Of the top 100 in the HOF, three appear to be female (based on the EEple avatars). Of the over 350 million points earned by the sitewide top 20, only 12 million (under 4%) were earned by females; among the top 10 EEers, the percentage of female-earned points is a flat zero. Only two of the top 25 Article Authors are female. None of the top 50 Articles (by view count) were written by females.
    In short: male dominance, as rated by the only coin of the realm (Points), is absolute and indisputable.
    As to your main point, I agree completely: There is no gender bias here. With very few exceptions, Experts-Exchange is a meritocracy. If the answer is correct, the gender of the Expert is completely irrelevant.
    If anecdotal evidence has any weight, I have to say this: The only situation where I saw a gender-related incident here was when a particular male Moderator was so overprotective of a female colleague that he violently and repeatedly attacked another male Page Editor for posting the most benign of helpful editorial criticism of an article she wrote. He never apologized and was never punished or sanctioned in any way for his egregious misbehavior.