A Tale of Two Cultures

Information technology has traditionally been a male-dominated field with an insular culture, but it is also a global business in which skilled workers are at a premium.

One of the most influential companies in IT history, IBM, has a long record of leadership on diversity issues–not just in IT, but in the corporate world. Its legacy goes back to the punch-card days, when the young enterprise included women and blacks in its workforce at the start of the 20th century, and continued through the decades with ahead-of-the-curve policies toward disabled and gay workers. In time, diversity and opportunity “became a recruitment tool” for IBM, says Ted Childs, the company’s former head of global workforce diversity.

But that type of legacy is not widespread in business. “IBM is the exception rather than the rule,” says Karen Sumberg, assistant vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy, a not-for-profit organization that studies women and work.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Institute on Aging gave a presentation on perceptions of older workers in the tech workplace in which they noted, “IT has an image of being youthful, male and white.” Older workers, one of the groups recognized under the diversity umbrella, are under-represented in IT and are more likely to lose their jobs than their younger colleagues.

Still, the nature of technology work seems to attract people who make decisions based on rational inputs rather than emotion, says Samir Luther, workplace project manager for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a gay, lesbian, transgender and transsexual rights group. Of course, IT people are not immune from prejudices, but they may be open to the logical case made for diversity. For whatever reasons, Luther says anecdotal evidence shows that as gender identity becomes a hot topic in diversity discussions, IT seems to attract a relatively large number of transgender workers.

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