I’ve been a bit reluctant to enter this discussion on my blog; partly because there are some amazing, thoughtful posts already that eclipse anything I could say and also because any of these discussions seem to spark a lot of outrage and anger regardless of the actual topic content. That kind of drama is a big turnoff for me. But I did want to say a few things about a recent experience at devopsdays because it seems to be an angle we aren’t discussing.
At devopsdays Silicon Valley this year, one of the breakout sessions was “Encouraging Women in Dev/Ops,” led by Doug Ireton, one of the awesome automation engineers at Nordstrom’s. I was already dragging from Velocity and hadn’t planned to go to any sessions, much less yet another “how do we get more women in tech” discussion.
If I sound impatient, it’s because I am a bit. In general, I don’t have any really strong opinions on the “women in tech” discussions. This is because I feel we have the same discussions over and over again without covering any new ground or making any difference in how people think. This may actually not be a fair feeling as the discussion has certainly changed the way I think. Or, more accurately, it’s made me think about it. I don’t actually think we should be worrying about how to get MORE women in tech as much as how to make it a comfortable place for people who are already here. Take care of that and balance will come eventually.
I entered tech during the 2000s internet boom where any warm body would do and you didn’t have to be a decent human being to keep your job. I know this because I often was not a decent human being myself. I was grumpy and petulant, at least in my head, and folks from those early days would probably agree (Kiosk level 2 support team who I pissed off in a major way and worked hard to repair that relationship, are you out there anywhere?). I did eventually grow up and become a moderately self-aware decent human being and have even managed to develop some empathy for people outside my direct life experience.
Not only have I worked in Tech most of my adult life, my dad was a wargamer and RPGer. I was exposed to many strains of nerds and geeks growing up and some of the biggest treats of my 8 year old self involved getting to stay up late with the grownups while they played D&D and maybe even being given a character sheet.
I lived in a house with 4 other guys in college where I learned to watch Star Wars and Repo Man on repeat on one TV while playing video games on the second TV until 2am.
What I’m trying to communicate with this history is that, while there are certainly some women in all of these lifestyle choices (wargames, rpg, tech support, web ops), we make up a small percentage. So I spent my life getting used to being one of very few women in any tech or social group. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it’s not fine. It largely depends on the company I’m keeping.
Regardless, I was taught to communicate by social groups who probably shouldn’t be teaching anything. But I learned early that guys tease and insult when they like you and that you shouldn’t worry until they are polite, kind or ignore you. That also became my style of communicating for a long time because that’s what I knew. To this day I am comfortable with it. Dick/Boob jokes don’t bother me. Profanity doesn’t bother me. It was co-workers on the clock that introduced me to such great things in life as Triumph, the insult comic dog, South Park and all kinds of inappropriately funny youtube videos. Calling me a girl doesn’t bother me. Calling me a princess doesn’t bother me because there are plenty of boy princesses out there and I’ve called them on it.
Things that DO bother me: overt misogyny, hatefulness and guys who constantly bitch at work about how their wife makes their life miserable. People who won’t admit there is a problem with “isms” in the world because they themselves don’t perpetuate it or see it. There is a big difference between a dick joke in private with friends/colleagues and making one at a party where you don’t know people. Context is everything.
The Effects of HTFU or GTFO
To be clear, I’m not saying I’ve sailed through life happily making dick jokes. I have experienced a lot of internal turmoil and emotional anguish over all-guy teams that I have been on, especially early in my career where it was still really hard to gain acceptance and professional respect. But 10 years ago it was HTFU or GTFO. And so that’s what I did. And when you make that a condition for acceptance, you greatly shrink the available population and personality types who stick around, both men and women.
The modern discussion of sexism (specifically because it relates to me) has taken me from an attitude of “most of it doesn’t bother me and I don’t know why people care” to “A lot of perceived exclusionary sexism doesn’t bother me, but other people have different expectations from their professional lives now; I entirely respect that and will work to make my professional sphere a welcoming and safe place.” In order to attract the next generation of women into tech, everyone is going to have to come at least this far in their thinking. And it’s not just sexism; it’s ableism, genderism, homophobia, and on and on.
But to get back to why I’m bored with the women-in-tech discussion people keep wanting to have, I don’t see it making a diff and I’m still getting a big vibe from guys of “I don’t do it and I don’t see it and how is it possibly a problem?” I ended up going to the discussion because I really like Doug and wanted to be supportive of his efforts. In general, it was pretty much what I always hear and it usually boils down to “we’re really nice guys and we can’t find any women to hire.” I get that there are not a lot of us out there. BUT…
Self Awareness is the Key
My answer to everyone who feels like this, and I gave it to the Nordstrom’s guys when we talked about it later, is this: work on your own self-awareness. I’m sure you think you’re a reasonable person who never had a sexist thought in their life. I’m pretty sure this is not true, because even I have made pissy comments about women drivers, although only in the privacy of my own car by myself. But I still think it. And I’m a woman!
So work on your self awareness. If you really care, go around to every woman in your professional and personal life and ask them to please offer you feedback if they feel you’ve ever done something sexist or demeaning either to them or in their presence, no matter how trivial it seems. Because I have news for you guys, we don’t offer that stuff uninvited. We expect to be scoffed at or ignored because so many people think sexism is drama. Example: I have a friend I’ve worked with at two places now and it took me 3 minutes to spit out “can I offer you some feedback?” before calling him on the fact that he’d talked over and for me in a meeting; something I find particularly galling.
None of this is going to get MORE women in tech. But it’s going to comfort the ones who are already here and word of mouth is a particularly powerful advertiser, as every viral video ever should tell you. And honestly, I think it’s going to do more for everyone if we clean up the house first before inviting more women over and asking them to help us clean it up for them.