Honestly, I’m super nervous about writing this post. Partially because I seemingly have a different perspective from many women. Additionally, sometimes talking about this topic makes you a target. However, both of those reasons are exactly why I should be sharing.
I want to start by clarifying the focus of this post. I fully support people, who are sharing and exposing the negatives of being a woman in technology. Everyone needs to listen to each and every one of them. I respect their courage and empathically express my sadness with these situations. Change doesn’t happen without awareness. However, this post focuses on the trend of trying to help these problems by creating women in “x” groups. And since my last post was well received, here it goes…
Over the years, I’ve been asked to speak about being a woman in technology or a woman in agile for conferences, articles and podcasts. So far, I’ve declined when the focus was solely on that. My stance has been: I want to speak on a topic demonstrating what a woman in “x” can do and not about being a woman. I guess it was my small way of changing the narrative focus. I’ve always been more drawn to things like the Dove “hacking” female images article (thanks Brandon for making sure I saw this) over the women in “x” groups. So I spent some time reflecting why.
I went to Michigan State University. I entered as a Computer Science and Engineering major. If I hadn’t been so sure that this was what I wanted, there were countless times that choosing something outside of engineering would have been easier. I frequently was the only female in a class. Even being the extroverted social lady that I am, I felt isolated. My advisor pointed me in the direction of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). I immediately joined. There were only a few females in Computer Science, but across all engineering disciplines, we had more numbers. I made new friends – one of my closest friends still today was from this community. I found support and understanding for the dynamics I faced. That community was so important to me. I even became the High School Outreach Co-Chair (reaching out to students to highlight engineering). What I loved most was that we didn’t focus on the negative aspects of being women in engineering, we spent time forming mutual bonds and how to help.
My initial experience with the SWE was so incredibly positive that I remained a member. I continued my active involvement by being a professional mentor to a high school student. What this meant was that I was paired up with a high school female expressing interest in Computer Science. I brought her to my workplace, I went out to dinner once a month to talk about the profession, and I helped write references for her to get into college. Now I was very lucky, the person I was assigned was an extraordinary lady. We lost touch over the years and then one day I got this email from her. She was publishing a book and starting a company. Not one bit of this information surprised me. I was honored that she remembered me and valued our time together. She definitely holds a very special place in my world too. Although I remained a member of SWE, one of my regrets is that I had not continued participating in this program. I’m sure all of my reasons at the time sounded very legit, however, today I wonder what I missed out on.
Around the time that I was contacted by my mentee and the regret was forming from no longer participating in SWE, I realized I wanted to engage in the community again. I decided to open the doors to help women explore engineering. As the Director of Development, once I put the word out, I received numerous calls. That’s when questions and uneasiness started to build. When I started in college, there was really only SWE. If there were more, I was completely unaware of them. Now I discovered SWE, Women in Computing, Women In Technology, Girls who Code, Geek Girls, etc. Honestly, I was disappointed that everyone one that I spoke with had the same mission. I think I was hoping that one focused on high school, one focused on college, one on professional, etc. But nope. Instead when I asked why a new group versus banding with an existing organization, the answers disturb me the most…”internal conflict formed a branch or niche”, “we wanted something specifically for us”, etc. Seriously, we all have the same goal and yet we don’t want to combine our efforts? We want to form our own version – why?!?!? I realize that this probably didn’t apply to all groups but regardless it left me with a bad taste and I didn’t engage.
Do not get me wrong…I am 100% behind being vocal about the crappy aspects of being a female in technology and what they can experience. In fact, I wasn’t silent when they happened to me directly then or now. However, every time I attempted to attend a Women in X event in recent years, I left bothered by these primary aspects:
- A primary focus on the bad crap. Yep, it’s nice to have a place to release some of that. Yep, it’s nice to know it doesn’t just happen to me. Yep, it’s important to not be silent. However, I don’t want to be in a long event where that’s all we focus on. My time with SWE was about building connections, relationships, opportunities, and helping. When I feel like the event is a vent session only, I’m not interested. Plus, I believe trained therapists should be present for these sessions.
- Fractured. I say this with the upmost respect to the women leading the numerous efforts, but I don’t understand the need for so many different women in x groups. We even already have different Women in Agile groups. Why? This seems counter to the goal. Plus, I loved having connections with women outside of my specialization in SWE. I learned so much about other engineering disciplines/companies/etc. The value of Women in Technology speaks more to me than the specialized groups. Maybe that’s partially because I’m social and built the connections within my community. Maybe that’s partially because it’s where my journey started. Maybe I’m just weird. I just feel like we would make a lot more traction with the goal if we were not all essentially competing.
- Advice that I don’t agree with. I’ve heard things that I flat out disagree with. I’m not saying I’m right and they are wrong, I have too much respect for complexity of humans and systems. However, I’m left feeling ill when I hear things like (yes, these are actual examples from multiple events that have haunted me):
- “Mentor as many women as you can. And when you have a man ask you to mentor him, then you know you’ve arrived.” Personally, I don’t mentor people strictly because they are a woman. So mentoring as many women as I can makes no sense to me. I mentor as many people as I can that I see potential and I think I can help: women and men. Also, I arrived when I chose what I wanted to specialize in. A man doesn’t get to determine whether I’m worthy and valuable, nor does a woman…I do.
- “If you have a female VP that is not being supportive, try to be her friend.” I’ve had women managers that were amazing (thanks Kim, Jill, Patricia) and I’ve had woman managers that were horrendous (nope, not naming). In my experience, I’ve found these trends that distinguish which will be the case: the manager is easily threatened (maybe their own imposter syndrome causes conflict), they expect to have you see them as a mentor (maybe their own need for status) and/or this is how the game works (I had crappy managers and dealt with it, so should you). Obviously, I don’t do well with any of these behaviors in leaders so I tend to have conflict as a result. Yes, I need to work on this more but my point is…being fake and trying to be someone’s friend is not the answer. Honestly, when I think back on what I could have done to avoid the conflicts, I’m fairly certain I would have had integrity conflicts with others. This advice reeks of “brown nosing” your manager and somehow because we are two females, that’s ok? Not all men at work are friends and guess what…not all women should be friends either.
- “If you don’t get invited to a meeting, just show up.” What about having a genuine conversation about why you were not invited and what value you feel you could bring? Passive aggressive behavior is rarely met with a desire to collaborate. What about giving the individuals the benefit of the doubt? Sure will the conversation be awkward, yep. But so would just showing up and everyone walking on egg shells because the elephant in the room is not being discussed.
- “Hire as many women as you can.” I fully understand the intent but I hear this and want to throw up. I wouldn’t want an all women team. I want diversity. When you focus on hiring women versus focus on hiring for diversity – you miss many other minorities in the tech field. Plus, I have seen this go horribly wrong. Someone hired a woman, who was not competent and shocker…it was horrible. The qualifications for hire should not be woman first. This does nothing to help women in technology. In fact, for me, it often made me have to prove myself more (which is one of the issues – an incompetent man doesn’t reflect on all men in the team but an incompetent woman can have impacts to other women).
Ok, I have to stop. I can feel myself getting upset remembering these.
I applaud the action of wanting to do something. I applaud the goal. I applaud the commitment and time it takes to create a Women in x group. In some cases, I know the organizers…they are fantastic women with honorable intentions. In fact, I have so much respect for the people trying something that I felt like these were my issues only and I simply didn’t fit. I even joked once that I left wondering if I was a woman. So my intent is more of a request than a complaint:
I’ve already embraced my choice to be in the technology industry. I would love a multi-discipline women event that teaches a skill or geeks out on doing something for a non-profit like a women’s shelter, etc. I want to be exposed to new concepts, I want a larger inclusive network, and I want to be focused on the positives of being a kickass woman in technology.
And I promise I will not be creating a new group to do this 🙂
But what could I do myself next? I wasn’t sure until I shared this post with a colleague, Rob challenged me to end this post with a personal request to help “move the needle” towards inclusiveness and empathy. Not only did I smile because I love my team that is always supportive but they know how to encourage me to do the thing I’m toying with but a little afraid…going to the edge:
I want to gather stories from women about why they choose and benefit from technology careers.
Note: There are lots of lists out there that highlight key women inventors and leaders. Personally, I found people like Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace to be inspiring but not relatable (I was the kid that wasn’t expected to go to college). I needed smaller success stories. I need everyday women stories.
I’m looking for women leaders to help share the positives of being a kickass leader in technology. I’m not hacking here like Dove, I just want to make sure my daughter, son and others hear the awesome aspects not just the horrific aspects. If you are interested in participating or want additional details, please message me.
I can’t do this justice with a comment, but your ability to bring this level of raw honesty is amazing and inspiring. Given that we co-teach and collaborate together, I obviously know that you always push the envelope. However here, you have raised the bar even higher. Impressed. Thankful. Proud.
Thanks. Very grateful for my team!
You got it. I’m number 2 on this. 1000% Tricia. We applaud your candor on this topic.
Aptitudes and attitudes are far more important than immutable qualities.
For some reason, you being a numbers person, 1000% made me laugh. Very grateful for my team!
Tricia, I was pleasantly surprised with where this post ended up.
For the record, during my 30 years in tech, I have studiously avoided what I considered the pink collar ghetto of women’s groups. This was true until a little over a year ago. When I attended a panel on successful women in tech and saw how far down the hierarchy these women were. I then joined a fast-growing local group when I was woken up to the fact that things had gotten worse, not better, since 1986, which is when I graduated from college. I finally had gotten to the point that, no matter what my experience was, I could see and hear the tremendous challenges other women have had. That moved me to action.
In the meantime, the difficult thing was that, in being more aware of other’s experiences and its effects, I became more aware of my own. I also became more aware of the sexism among male colleagues whom I’d assumed were more enlightened. It’s been quite a year. It’s amazing what a shift in awareness will do.
I understand why there are so many different women in X groups. Women are not a homogenous class. There are at least 5 women in tech-flavored communities in the city I live in. There’s one for Lesbians Who Tech another for women who code in Python. In the past, I’ve often found women in X groups tended to focus a lot on “how do I fit work around husband and kids” issues. Not my flavor, either.
I’ve had to admit to myself that women do have some specific concerns that arise when they work in tech. I haven’t liked admitting that. It seems to me that it’s weird that it should be so. We need to evolve. I also don’t like getting stuffed in the woman box, which is what can happen when you speak to these issues. I’m not too keen on seeing a gender modifier on any role or job title. But . . . there’s something to this.
My focusing efforts have been to launch a local woman-led Coderetreat focused on women (men are also welcome) because I noticed that, for some reason, women were not attending the male-led Coderetreat that had been running for a few years. We had 90 women sign up the first time. We have these events approximately quarterly, and I’m beginning to understand why women weren’t attending the other Coderetreat, though I think that’s improving.
My other effort is to launch a Partnership Unconference to look at collaborating across the gender spectrum–inside tech and out. I feel sick about the tensions between the genders, and I think we need a container for frank conversations. Open Space is great for this sort of thing.
I encourage you in your quest to look at the positives for women in tech, and I’d be happy to participate as one of your stories. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted to work in anything other than software development, and it’s been a great ride. That I was surfing above a sleazy underbelly of rampant hostility toward my gender, and I wasn’t more aware of it is still of interest to me. I’m still learning from that. It says something about who I am, how I was raised, and how much I can miss.
And, I’ve certainly had your experience of alienation as a woman among women. I memorized parts of this speech from Sojourner Truth years ago because it so spoke to my experience http://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/sojour.htm
Women will say “women this, and women that,” and, yet, the experience they describe is often not mine. Their experience is valid, and so is mine. The amazing variation in experience and requirements for like-minded community is fascinating to me.
Thank you so much for sharing. I will be in touch soon.
+1 Tricia. I posted similar sentiments in a piece I wrote for the same organization I believe you are describing. In fact I believe I heard the same advice and completely disagreed with it also. That organization, ironically chose to edit a critical part of the post regarding how a male peer treated a woman and admitted it was based on gender. When I asked why these fellow women censored my writing they said “even though you didn’t name him he knows you are talking about him and we don’t want him to feel bad.” What??? How about the woman he discriminated against for being female? What about how she feels?
Once we get to people in agile we will have made real progress….no need for a separate women in agile group then :).