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Discrimination in Information Technology?

By Merlene Reynolds

It was 1976 when I first entered the computer industry. That's what it was called then. I worked at a service bureau. This meant that we processed computer programs for multiple clients. Computers were programmed by programmers, not software developers. Our companies were headed by presidents and the systems analyst was the power behind the throne. The computer operators and keypunch operators were the assembly line; they were responsible for production.

There was one data controller which some companies called a production controller. This position was responsible for scheduling the computer jobs based on the client's needs. They were somewhat like the internal account representative who was always a telephone call away from the client and the technical team members who kept the programs operating. The production controller was the person who scheduled the jobs for nightly runs, the one who coordinated with keypunch operators who later became data entry operators, and the one who was permitted to enter the computer room.

The computer room was secured by a combo-lock that required a password which was typically six digits long before the latch permitted entry. The production controller was the one who knew everyone. If a job aborted, the production controller contacted one of about six programmers for help or, if things were really bad, someone contacted the systems analyst who typically had an office only slightly smaller than the president's.

I got the job after applying to a classified advertisement printed in the Denver Post. The ad read: "Work with computers. No experience necessary." It really wasn't as easy to get this job as it sounds, but weeks later, I was hired. I felt privileged. I felt smart. I still didn't know what a computer was, but was willing to learn.

I didn't realize until a few years later that this industry was dominated by men. Most of the programmers I worked with were hippies. They wore long hair, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. They were "anti-establishment" and proud of it. They wrote the programs, they ran the computer room and, occasionally, they tried to explain to management what they did all day. The unspoken agreement was that it was their computer and management could keep their hands off. Management was responsible for sales and payroll. As long as the pay checks kept coming, the programmers kept the machine running. They seldom had meetings to discuss status and management seldom asked too many questions. They designed programs on a chalk board and drew pictures on the back of "green bar." Lunch was always a hamburger and a cola. Programmers seldom brought a sack lunch and never went out to lunch. Their work day started when they got there and ended when they decided to go home. They wore blue jeans to work when everyone else wore business attire.

The other unspoken rule seemed to be that men were programmers and computer operators while the women were data entry operators or secretaries. The women made the coffee and the men drank it. The women did the typing from a pre-printed form that the men had completed using a #2 pencil. The men carried calculators in their pockets; the women carried pocketbooks.

The first service bureau I worked for was sold to a larger company. While explaining to me what was happening to the company, my boss first called it a "merger." Later, he explained that a merger is always a sale. The bigger business always buys the smaller business. They call it a merger to make it sound nicer to the employees who get "acquired" by the new owner. In those days, when a business sold, the owner always made sure the employees were protected in their "new" jobs. The employees were expected to keep things running while the new owner "transitioned" the business. The new owner always promised a brighter future with better working conditions and more pay.

Now, it is 34 years later. I have been in the computer industry that is now called "information technology" for over three decades. I am no longer the girl they call "kid." I am now the "ol' lady." I was a consultant before we were called "contractors." I have worked in this industry through four generations of computers and haven't worked with any "bug free" software since sometime in 1981. We never "released" software quarterly and we certainly never had "daily" builds. We never needed "call centers" for clients to report their problems to. Our clients always had a business card in their Rolodex and could telephone locally for free. AT&T was the telephone company with Baby Bells nationwide. People bought shares in AT&T; not stock. It was a utility company, not a consumer good.

That was then and, of course, this is now. Thirty-four years later and I am still counting other people's compiles. I never believed then what I know now. Job title matters. Gender matters. Money matters. Looks matter. Now, after many years, I can actually say that I am tired of people insulting my intelligence simply because I am female. I am tired of the insults, the insinuations, the assumptions and, mostly, I'm tired of the arrogance. Late at night, like tonight, I try to humor myself with the knowledge that I am working on yet another "contract assignment" for a male who calls himself a "systems architect" - yet he doesn't even know what a conversion file is.

Merlene is a Communications Content Consultant working under the business name of Merlene's Memos. She also publishes articles about: computers, technology, psychology, criminology, sociology, media, human behavior, offender behavior, relationships, ethics and more. Contact Merlene's Memos for help managing a special project or creating content for your corporation.
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