Geek girls, a man's world

Updated: 2013-09-01 08:07

By Tiffany Tan (China Daily)

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Geek girls, a man's world

They're the IT girls, women working in the information technology industry dominated by men in almost every country, including China. Tiffany Tan finds out why there are so few females getting ahead in a nation where they traditionally "hold up half the sky".

Chu Yanli's boyfriend again suggested she quit her software engineering job three months after they started dating. It was 4 am on a weekday in April, and Chu had just gotten home from work. She'd spent the past 18 hours glued to her office computer, trying to fix a programming glitch on Alipay, China's leading online payment service.

The 27-year-old remembers bawling in her boyfriend's arms as they lay in bed, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem her information technology team had just faced.

If the group hadn't moved quickly to debug a code Chu had written, their customers' accounts might have gone haywire. Alipay, an affiliate of the e-commerce company Alibaba, has some 800 million accounts.

"I was feeling small and weighed down by work pressure, and he said: 'Why don't you just change jobs? I don't like seeing you this worn out,'" Chu recalls.

Her boyfriend works in the same profession. But after a few hours of tossing and turning in bed, Chu says she was eager to get back to programming. It was a profession she'd dreamt of since high school, when her QQ instant-messaging account got hacked and she realized computer whizzes possessed astonishing skills.

What about her boyfriend's wishes? Won't her career choice jeopardize their relationship?

"What he says doesn't count," Chu says, jokingly, during a recent trip to Beijing from her home in Zhejiang province's capital Hangzhou.

"He can make suggestions. But the final decision is mine."

Chu's conviction stands out in a country where women make up only 30 percent of the workforce in science, technology and engineering fields, a 2010 paper by management school professors says at China Women's University.

The situation is rooted in the traditional Chinese notion that science, technology and engineering are the domains of men, the study says.

Xie Shuang spent four years studying software development alongside Chu at Shaanxi province's Xidian University, mastering programming languages like Java, Java Script and C++.

But Xie decided not to go into IT after hearing her mother's career advice. She instead sought a position in her hometown at the Xi'an Xianyang International Airport, where she is now an investment manager in its business development department.

"(My mother) thought this workplace was more suitable for a woman," the 27-year-old says.

"She also wanted me close by."

What did her mom mean by "a job more suited to a woman"?

One with a more regular routine, set hours and not much overtime, Xie says. Overtime and long hours hunched over a computer are commonplace in software development, she says.

This was the same message Chu and her female classmates heard throughout school - from schoolmates, friends and even their male teachers.

"They said: 'Girls, one day you'll be pregnant, but this job will still require you to work overtime'," Chu recalls.

"They said that if I took a less complicated job, like working for the government, teaching, or doing sales, marketing or clerical work, I'd feel more relaxed. My looks won't suffer, and I'll have more time for my family.

"People outside the IT industry only see our long hours and tiring work. But this profession offers a huge sense of achievement. The codes I write and applications I create help people make online purchases. There's a lot of value in it."

When her software development class of almost 120 students graduated in 2008, fewer than half of the group's 16 women entered the IT industry, Chu says. She's the only woman among 24 men on her Alipay team.

Women who work in China's technology industry are largely involved in marketing, idea design, art work and product testing, says an IT sales consultant for an international recruitment firm, who declined to be named because of company policy.

These jobs are regarded as more social and artistically creative than coding software or constructing hardware, the consultant explains.

In a country rooted in socialist ideals - which hold men and women as equals - the belief that certain professions are "men's work" has endured and influences women's choices.

Since society regards computer science as a man's domain, women are discouraged from studying it. The result is a small trickle of women entering IT, says Susanne Choi, director of the Gender Research Center at the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies.

The industry's gender imbalance - what Choi calls "occupational gender segregation" - reinforces existing gender stereotypes. It also fosters a male-dominated professional network and culture that become barriers to women who want to enter the field, she says.

Having more female role models can help break this cycle, human resource experts say. But only 11 percent of Fortune 500 technology companies' executives are women, IT Manager Daily reports.

"If there aren't any role models for women to look to, they might not see themselves in that position," says Christine Wright, Asia operations director of Hays, a multinational recruitment company with offices in China.

Only 11 percent of the software developers Hays recruited on the mainland from July 2012 to June 2013 were women. The rate was 3.2 percent in the previous 12 months.

"We have tips that we give (companies) about what they should be doing for female applicants to feel that they can apply, that they can get ahead," Wright says.

Amid working long days and irregular hours, Chu dreams of becoming a software architect helming the creation of innovative programs.

She's also envisioning her happy home - one in which she's sitting next to her husband, son and daughter, all of them tapping out new software applications on their laptops.

Contact the writers through

Zhang Yue contributed to this report.

 Geek girls, a man's world

Chu Yanli joins her colleagues on holiday. She's the only woman among 24 men on her Alipay team. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily 09/01/2013 page1)