IT 'Outsiders' Don't Have to Feel Alone

For minorities in IT, landing a job is only half the battle. In their book, From the Outside In (Amacom Books, 2000), Renee Blank, Sandra Slipp and Vincent Ford write about people who find themselves isolated from their co-workers and unhappy on the job because of their race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or disability. While the book looks at the U.S. workplace in general, Slipp suggests in an interview that much of its advice is particularly applicable to minority workers in IT.

The book uses a series of case studies to illustrate problems and solutions for minority workers. It cites Fred, a black senior engineer who feels increasingly isolated and disrespected at his new company and concludes that his co-workers are racially prejudiced; Waheed, a project manager and Pakistani immigrant who seethes when colleagues joke that his Muslim religion makes him sympathetic to terrorists; Karen, a Chinese-American systems analyst whose cultural inclination to be reserved and respectful of co-workers leaves them uncertain of her expectations; and Dan, a disabled systems analyst who feels so vulnerable that he's afraid to take any of the risks necessary to move forward on his job.

Anticipating Bias

Slipp notes that minorities sometimes anticipate bias, and those expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. "Many people expect the worst," she says. "They think there will be prejudice out there, and they don't look for people who will be friendly to them."

Fred and Waheed, for example, need to give people the benefit of the doubt and recognize the difference between misguided kidding or ignorance and actual hostility, Slipp says. They may be tempted to withdraw rather than confront people over hurtful comments, but that would be a mistake.

By explaining differences to co-workers, they can educate them, clear the air and make everyone more comfortable. "Remember, it's in your long-term interest," Slipp says. "If you act hostile or withdraw, you suffer."

Slipp says cultural characteristics frequently get in the way of advancement, especially in IT. While Americans are taught that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," Asians learn that "the nail that sticks up gets pounded down," and Hispanics feel it's rude to speak out and "take the place of honor" from those with more seniority or experience. As a result, an Asian may not ask for a raise or new assignment because drawing attention to herself is contrary to her cultural mores. A Latino may not speak up at a meeting, feeling that would show disrespect for those with more seniority. Both may expect that their work will speak for itself, and they may end up quitting if they don't get the recognition they think they deserve.

"You must make people aware of what you have accomplished and what you are able to do," Slipp says. For example, she advises, speak out, talk about projects, be a resource to others.

IT workers - particularly those from outside the dominant culture - have to resist the inclination to be loners, she says, adding, "Fifty percent of your job is interpersonal relations." That means you need to make an effort to connect, even if it's just stopping at someone's desk and making conversation. "Maximize mutual interests," she advises. "Empathize with someone else's problems. If someone asks you to go out for lunch with them, go."

Outsiders like Dan, the disabled systems analyst, often feel particularly visible and vulnerable, and as a result they seem to be more risk-averse than others, Slipp says. This is also true of racial minorities. A national survey conducted by one of the authors found that while 85% to 90% of whites feel they take risks on the job to advance their careers, only 65% of Asian-Americans, 50% of blacks and 40% of Latinos feel that way. "Take risks!" Slipp says. "Don't be so cautious. Think of a new way of doing things and propose it."

People from other cultures often resist this kind of advice for fear of "selling out" to fit in, Slipp says, but she stresses that buying into the work culture doesn't mean selling out your own. "You can maintain your own culture but stretch and see how you can also fit into the organization," she says.

If ever there was an opportunity for diversity to flourish, it's today in IT. But according to Slipp, it takes initiative and daring.

"The concrete ceiling is cracking, and it is possible to move forward, but nobody will pluck you up and do it for you," she says.

Kathleen Melymuka is a Computerworld feature writer. Contact her at kathleen_melymuka@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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