Friday, February 24, 2012

Is the sysadmin community inviting to women?

Is the sysadmin community inviting to women?

As program chair for the 2012 Usenix LISA conference, I've been busy recruiting papers and trying to spread the joy of a LISA conference for the professional sysadmin. Along the way I've had some discouraging feedback from some fellow female sysadmins. They don't attend because they feel like outsiders at the conference. One even went so far as to say it was a men's club.

Could we make the conference more welcoming with some subtle changes: more women as speakers, a woman as keynote, gatherings for women (a women's BOF?), maybe a women of LISA sub-group?

There are certainly more women at LISA than there were 10 years ago. It probably feels odd for a new person to walk up to a random woman in the hallway just because she's a woman. "Hi, we have gender in common, do you want to be friends?"

Issues relating to women and system administration started brewing in my head when a friend asked me to sit on a panel of women in system administration at the 2011 Usenix LISA conference. My gut reaction was "no" because I didn't think there was anything constructive to say on this subject. I'd been in the field for 2 decades and did I really think that being a woman had held me back? In the end, I did the panel and it was eye opening for me. It was strange how many of us were thinking these odd thoughts but we hadn't voiced them out loud. As soon as they were out there, the room was full of nods of agreements and "me too" reactions.

Some issues were raised that I had not previously considered:

  • Professional women are intimidated by other professional women. I think it has to do with the effort it takes to be "just one of the guys" or at least accepted and respected. Most of this is in our own heads. There is some fear that there can be only one accepted and respected woman in a group of guys. Even if you have no desire to compete, you still enter a room with 10 men and 1 woman dreading the 1 woman. We admitted that we felt silly about this.
  • Women are apologetic compared to men. On mailing lists, in meetings, even in interviews we tend to apologize and phrase our answers using words like should, could, and maybe which makes us seem less confident about our capabilities.
  • Women don't always feel welcome in a culture where ribbing and ridicule is the norm. One of the panelists brought up her experiences on IRC where some of the channel members would be rude and nasty when she posed a question. Men seem more comfortable in this arena of name-calling and "friendly" abuse.
I'm trying not to write this so it sounds like a bunch of fixed generalizations. There are of course exceptions to any attempt to generalize.

I can imagine that any open gathering of people from our profession would sway toward mostly male attendance. So how do women deal with that on a daily basis: at work, in community meet-ups (e.g. irc, mailing lists, LUGs)? Personally, I see several women in the #lopsa channel on IRC. It's kinda refreshing when I think about it. That said, I don't think I walk around thinking about gender issues in system administration all the time. In fact, before the LISA '11 panel, I hadn't given it much conscious thought at all. For the most part, I've found the conference (Usenix ATC, LISA & LOPSA PICC) community friendly and inviting.

In talking with a friend, also in the profession, she asked why more women don't write papers. It's true, there is a lack of female authors in the conferences we attend and organize. The common response when one of us approaches a fellow tech woman about a paper topic is "I'm sure someone has already done that." If we think you have a cool idea, then maybe it really is a cool idea. Stop doubting yourself. There is a review process and the worst that can happen is a rejection from the program committee with comments from the reviewers. In fact, your submission is confidential and cannot be shared outside of the group of official reviewers.

So let's get back to the conference and sysadmin community as a whole. Are there things we could to to make the sysadmin community more inviting to tech women? I'm interested in workable ideas.

For those who want to see more women in the profession and the community, I don't think the gender balance can change overnight. If there is a change, it will happen gradually, over generations. I think the first step is to find our own way in the community which might just create a path for others to follow.

Here are some resources I've stumbled upon for women in tech:

Shared on Google+ by a fellow tech woman:
Thanks to jtrucks, I can link directly to the Google+ thread.