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.


  1. As a man in IT I have always been aware that the percentage of women I work with in our field is far lower than the population split along gender lines. I am clearly more cognizant of this disparity than most men - at least in a constructive way. There are still way too many male geeks who latch onto the few women colleagues they are expoed to in ways that make women rightfully uncomfortable. Fortunately, I see less disparaging comments about a woman's prowess and abilities in the technical realms than I used to, but there is clearly too much of the good old boy humor flying around with sexist commentary abounding. Quite often men in tech use sexist language and are ignorant that this is what they are doing. This speaks to a lack of desire ans effort amon men in our field to educate themselves in what sexism looks and sounds like. I try to combat this by including women as colleagues on equal footing in my choice of language, both verbal and non-verbal, as well as invitations to social and professional gatherings or conversations. I make sure to elicit opinions of everyone on a topic, not just the men. I will either agree or disagree with a woman's opinion on a subject exactly as I would with a man's opinion. That is equal and professional treatment. Gender bias has no place in our profession (or anywhere else for that matter), and equal and professiona treatment of everyone in our community is key to this. In addition, I wuld like to lesson or nearly eradicate the old school meanness of the constant ribbing and insulting behavior that makes all of us ultimately uncomfortable. I wish that we would all quash that behavior rather than responding defensively with one-up-manship to further the train of insults and tearing down of one another. That behavior doesn't help us get along and it simply encourages the bad reputation geeks still often have from outsiders.

    1. The old school meanness seems ingrained. Maybe some don't even realize they're doing it or they have done it for so long they can't imagine not doing it. Is it part of the "cool kid" mentality, whereby you're cool if you do it and can "take it like a man"? That particular issue is cultural and it is hard for a woman to combat this one-on-many. If I walk into a discussion where a bunch of tech guys are talking disrespectfully, sexist or just meanly to one-another, and I speak up, then I'm THAT female. "Oh here she comes, the raging feminist, to break up our fun. Maybe they don't say that but it's how I would feel being the lone woman to say "that's just not funny and it makes me uncomfortable." Though I can do that when it is directed *at* me.

    2. And I forgot to thank you for being one of the guys who "gets it" and supports change. Every one of you that exists, helps support the change we need to feel less like outsiders to the community. Though, again, the LOPSA and LISA communities do have some great people who are helping to move us forward.

    3. I would suggest there's more to it than merely responding to {men,women} as you would to {women,men}. Yes, that is absolutely necessary, but those two sets are neither separately distinct, nor are they internal identical. From talking to many, many people it is individual social response that matters as much or more than gender (particularly since neither gender nor the self-expression thereof are anywhere near as binary as most people seem to indicate they think they are).

      Each and every person interacts with others a bit differently, and familiarity between those interacting individuals will change the patterns of interaction as well. Two people that know each other well might have a comfortable familiarity that allows commentary and interaction that might seem crass, colorful or even abusive to someone outside that set of two. Many interactions between people that have just met seem to make use of internal expectations they have attached to their perception of how they expect the person to think and behave, and a mismatching behaviour there can be one of the fastest ways of setting current and future interactions up for strife.

      One of the basic tenets I've learned in various classes (management, communication, etc). is that it is the responsibility of both parties in a conversation to observe how the other seems to be best participating in the dialog (sometimes through passive observation, other times through explicit statements from the other party) and try to use those techniques that will best be received and understood. Incorrect assessment of the other person can still cause problems, and failure to even attempt meeting the needs of the other person can be the fastest way of starting off wrong.

      Just as there are some that need to make any effort at all at considering the expectations and needs of the other person, there are also some that do need to have a slightly thicker skin. Perhaps the other person is just having a really bad day/year and that's not even their usual style of interacting.

      And that's all just between two people. When you get larger groups in any way, things get more interesting given the greater number of nodes in the graph and potential interactions between them. There is no excuse for seemingly trying to tear down someone that has only just been met for the first time, or being overtly aggressive in showing the person they are not part of the in-group.

      Not all people are going to get along, but it is inexcusably unprofessional in a work/conference/etc setting to be so unwelcoming or abusive to someone in a peer group. I think attention to those topics alone would go a long way to improving the perceptions of our industry and the feeling of welcome (or current lack of it) for the currently underrepresented sets such as women.

  2. This is a huge challenge, and it's a challenge women have been facing in our society for decades.. centuries really. It saddens me that men can be so oblivious to this. I quite often will say things like, "Are you kidding me? You're going to say stuff like that at work?!?" with the goal of embarrassing someone into considering how they are speaking. I can't stop people from talking in sexist or other bigoted ways outside of work, but I can sure try to get them to bite their tongue at work and other professional contexts. Perhaps those that weren't consciously aware of their own behavior in this context who were just playing along will really think about it and change it for themselves. Perhaps they will even be the next guy who says, "Are you kidding me?" at next year's conference when it happens.

    I have hope this will make a difference, but even when it doesn't seem to make a difference, I will speak out. I do this when I hear any type of hate speech, whether it is sexist, homophobic, racist, or anything else rooted in hatred of different peoples. Thankfully, I am no longer screaming into the wind as often as I used to be. There are more and more men joining the voices of women in the fight against sexism, just as more and more people are speaking out against other bigotry.

    1. I'm glad you notice a difference. I think you are making a difference and you are not the only one. After the LISA women's panel, I talked to several men in the hallway who feel as you do. I think the differences are gradual and slow to see unless you look back a long way. The same will be true for the changes moving forward. We will improve the community and we will slowly bring more women in to see that it's a great community. It will take time. Some day we will look back and say "remember when..."

  3. There's a great discussion on Google+ associated with this... too bad it isn't attached to the actual blog.

  4. I'm going to summarize some of the Google+ chatter here so it isn't lost from the original article.

    This may be a hot potato issue for the guys. Still, I'm looking for ideas. Not a woman? :) Ok guys, ask the talented tech women around you: what changes could we make today to bring more women into the community?

    I know some of the guys are tiptoeing on eggshells over this issue. I wish it didn't have to be that way... this feeds into the next comment.

    Someone on G+ said that often this issue is drowned out by aggressive types and non-aggressive types clashing. I can see this too. Unfortunately this subject becomes a mire because of the different types of people involved. On the male-aggressive side are the guys who push back against more women joining the fray and think that women should just suck it up. On the female-aggressive side are the women who, in trying to face the problem head-on, sometimes alienate some of the moderate men and women. These people probably have the most publicly recognized face on this issue because they're on opposite sides. On the male-less-aggressive front are those guys who feel one way or the other but are afraid to voice it. On the female-less-aggressive are the females who are afraid to speak up, some of who take on a victim role. In the middle I think are the rest of us who are trying to have an open discussion on what is working and what is not and what we can do to make it even better (because I think it is better than it was a decade ago). I'd like to bring the moderate voices to the front so we can recognize progress and contribute to it as a community.

  5. One thing that would help would be more female names on the program. The issue with papers is a good microcosm of the problem, but getting some female names next to the titles for the training/sessions tracks would be a great start.

    Novell's Brainshare had a female headliner for years in the form of Laura Chappel, who taught network analysis. It was a great class and always packed.

    1. I agree, we need more role models.

      I think it's difficult because we're asking more of the tech women. If there are 20 tech women to 200 tech guys, we want half of those women to stand up and get noticed so others can see them as role models. We don't ask half of the 200 men to be role models. It's some added pressure to being a female in a tech role.

    2. As I recall from the Women in Tech panel at LISA, the following was offered:

      "The longer you're a women in a technical field, the chances of you giving a talk about, or being on a panel regarding Women in Tech trends towards one."

      So... yeah. It's the ambassador problem; if you're the only one of $MinorityGroup people know, you're going to be called upon to be the ambassador between them and everyone else. It also means you're unwillingly the standard bearer for said group to those people. This may also explain the subtle hostility that can arise when some other member of $MinorityGroup shows up, it's now a shared burden which is unfamiliar.

    3. We're going to beat this one. Any women interested in joining our un-club of women in system administration? Come one, come all.

  6. Another Google+ share, one of the tech women posted this link:

    I had no idea there was a syndrome. There are some suggestions for combating this as well. I know I've felt this way in my professional career. Guys are wrong all the time, but somehow when I'm wrong it means I'm not good enough.

    1. Totally.

      Male privilege means that when I barely know what I'm talking about I boldly go forward as if I completely know what I'm talking about and people believe me. I am entitled to offer my (badly formed) opinion because I have valuable insights, and if I'm wrong they'll tell me; no harm done.

      But... I still have that fear of failure. I'm just culturally advantaged when it comes to weathering the set-back, which makes me more likely to commit fault.

      When I'm experiencing imposter syndrome I know weasel-words start creeping into my statements ("I think," "I believe," "it seems to me," "Perhaps maybe," and on).

    2. I second that! I catch myself using weasel words all the time. But are they weasel words or is it that women don't usually have that blind arrogance/confidence that seems common in men in our profession?

      It means we walk into a conversation allowing that we might not be correct or there might be another (better) way. We are offering our experience or opinion to the conversation and recognizing that community = collaborative effort, not a competition for who is right.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I changed which item I was responding to for my first reply, but it was placed here where I had begun a previous reply instead of at the new location, hence a deleted (moved) comment.

      Similar to UnPixie's response, I would describe what are called weasel words above are in many cases the most honest and effective way of putting things. If some participant in a conversation is making assertions without knowledge of their truth, even if they are prepared to be called out on the untruth, that is what I would consider the actual problem. It's intelectually dishonest and ovbiously creates some level of interpersonal discord when the behaviour of other participants is not the same. The particularly bad part of the problem is that the failure to be called out any part of the time then still reinforces the behaviour. There is then likely to be no long-term change in the behaviour. [References include B. F. Skinner, Operant Conditioning, Reinforcement Theory, etc.]

      As such, there are multiple possible topics that need to be discussed for how to address things, but I want to stick with so-called "weasel words" first before I tackle methods of addressing the other interpersonal issues.

      Some of the most powerful words in our arsenal as homo sapiens are "I do not know" of which those so-called "weasel words" are a closely related. I'm speaking here of taking a scientific methodology in the way we do things. Prefixing with "I think", "I believe", and so on means it matches all of the evidence the speaker has seen, but they realize and expect there could well be a situation they have not yet experienced. Saying "I do not know" means there is an area that needs investigation, possibly in a way that as you get closer to the truth it can result in those papers or publications you point out are often never produced.

      If someone is truly convinced they have exhausted the realm of possibilities and are ready to make an assertion without caveat they still do need to be open to new evidence as was suggested. But intent really matters here. If alternate possibilities have been considered and discarded through evidence or lack thereof the assertion might be reasonable. On the other hand, if it is being done as mere posturing after a failure of even consdering alternative explanations then we have seen many examples from the history of science where contrary (and more correct) views were withheld since they appeared to go against the current consensus. [See the history books regarding Aether, Humours, Geo-centrism, etc. and other institutional forms of Confirmation Bias]

      This is part of how properly using scientific methods (preferably with a fully Bayesian inference way of updating even an individual's assumptions) can help even the interpersonal/softer part of the profession.

      In the area of the over-arching blog post: despite some people claiming that there is no problem or that there is no male privilege, it is the mere existence proof given posts like this or the tales of those you interacted with at LISA'11 showing examples of an actual problem that render the assertion that there is no problem something that needs to be abandoned immediately. How big of a problem, and the causes and possible solutions to the problem, remain open for debate. But the mere existence of a problem is settled for anyone that is willing to observe the evidence.

      The use of weasel words are a problem if they are being used solely out of a fear of failure, but they really should be embraced when they are used to indicate an honest lack of complete certainty or to indicate the possibility of some corner cases not yet encountered that might exist. As such, I do not think anyone should be apologetic or attempt to avoid those words and phrases in general, but the social interaction pushing someone to use them when not warrented does need addressing.

  7. Reading some of the comments posted and through email, it seems like some people think I'm saying that women need to change in order to be successful. We can't be shy or apologetic and we have to stop being ourselves. Gosh, I hope that isn't what is inferred here. I felt like I was trying to identify with my peers and recognize what might be making us feel like outsiders. I'm pretty sure I adapted to fit into the culture 20 years ago. So what can we do differently so women can still be themselves, enjoy what they do, and feel like part of the community. Recognizing our differences seems like one step but not the only one.

    1. Most of the posted comments are not posted here but in other social media sites.

  8. An interesting comment from Google+. Panel parity at Comicon evens the odds:

    1. I started a first reply based on one of the other weightier responses above but I keep being too wordy and decided to step back and start with the lighter side of things.

      One of the web comics I follow spoke to that particular issue of panel parity at comic conventions as well (though I prefer how the RSS version puts the text commentary above the comic so you can get some explanation before the comic):

      More on the other topics once I manage to edit myself a bit (and even then I'll still be too wordy).

  9. Our numbers are small in this industry. Times and attitudes are changing. However, until the work that women do AFTER work changes, there will never be an abundance of women at conferences and writing papers. When I was single and working fulltime in the 80s and early 90s, I could zip and attend any conference that caught my and my boss's interest. Now, I'm teaching future sysadmins on a parttime basis and everything revolves around my family's schedule. I'm an awesome woman but superwoman I am not. Until people like me can comfortably rid themselves of some of the (self-imposed) restrictions/duties at home/community OR the number of female admins grows considerably, we're stuck with the hand full of women that can attend.
    My advice to that handfull: I've been a minority all of my life in every aspect of my life (Black, female, MIT Grad, IT professional). Go forth with confidence. Sometimes, we women are our worst enemies... For the most part, people think you are great because you've made it where so many have not. Don't be afraid to speak up. There may be an insensitive, condescending jerk there. So what, HE has the problem, not YOU.

    1. +1 or Like!

      You sound like a great role model for the students you're teaching.

      You bring up a good point too. If we stick with traditional roles outside of work then it does become difficult to juggle being super at work. I think I have good parity at home which allows me to push the boundaries that might otherwise be unavailable to me (such as organizing the LISA conference this year while also being a parent--I couldn't do it without a supportive $spouse).

      Some things will probably never be equal such as pregnancy, nursing and usually maternity leave. Depending on who you are and how those issues impact you, they can also impact your professional world. No guy in the world can take that stress away (though paternity leave is possible for some guys--some organizations don't support it).

      Thanks for the comments. Find me on Google+ or Facebook if you want to talk about getting your students more involved in the sysadmin community. LOPSA also has a mentoring program for up and coming sysadmins:

  10. I am a woman, and I have been doing system administration since before there was a job description or name for it. Except for during my 6 years in the US Navy as a Data Systems Technician in the mid-70's, I have not experienced any overt sexist attitudes towards me or my capabilities in my profession. To the contrary, I have striven to earn the respect of those I work with, and comport myself with professional behavior.

    That being said, the majority of my co-workers have always been male, I understand their humor, and will call them on any inappropriate behavior in a way that is appropriate to the circumstance. I've found this to be mostly unnecessary to do. I have also had the privilege to work with quite a few women in SysAdmin - at SGI and and two national laboratories.

    I have actually found that my presence has been appreciated as a good influence on staffing. Perhaps having a woman in SysAdmin has the benefit of bringing a bit of sanity to the workplace, who knows?

    What I do know is this: each PERSON is in control of their circumstances. How one reacts to a given situation will influence all those who surround you, whether you know this or not.

    As far as women in System Administration - it can be a tough field. I have gravitated solely towards Unix server and network administration. It requires a real feel for technical problem solving. What interests men, does not always interest women, and the reverse of course is true. But, I've always had an interest in how-things-work. I was at the last LISA conference (having attended several over the years), and I really never felt in tune with what was going on around me. Not sure why that's the case this time around, but there you have it.

    Lastly, I have thought about submitting a paper this year, but have little time on my hands for this extra effort. This post has brought the possibility back to the top of the heap once again... we'll see which way the shift will go - right shift, or left? :-)

    1. I think my experiences align closely with yours. This certainly is a two-way street. We have to be able to find the right balance in the profession and I agree that we bring a different dynamic to our teams. :)

      Part of the problem with LISA is that we expect each person to find their own way. Go to a BOF or the reception and meet people. If you don't feel comfortable walking up to a stranger, (this goes for both men and women) then you stand off to the side absorbing what you can. We'll probably have a women's BOF to bring women together but that doesn't mean we're all going to be instant BFFs. We're all wired differently so throwing us together can get the conversation started but then it's up to each of us to take that to the next step.

      Honestly, I do feel comfortable around my male counterparts. I'm not comfortable in a social atmosphere that is anti-women, but, like you, I have the ability to speak up in an appropriate manner when necessary.

      Thinking of writing a paper! Contact me offline :) I'd love to talk topics with you. No pressure to submit if you don't have the time or inclination.

  11. Coming to this very late, but two random things occur to me:

    1. Conventional wisdom is that when a man wants to learn a new set of job-related skills, he figures out a way to do so on the job; when a woman wants to learn a new set of job skills, she goes back to school. If this is true -- I looked for hard data but didn't find it -- then a field like systems engineering/administration that isn't directly taught in schools should see all kinds of side effects when it comes to participation of women. (Now that I think of it, it'd be interesting to know if career paths within sysadmin that have use certifications draw/retain more women than those that don't.) n.b. I don't at all think this, even if it's true, is the only reason why one doesn't see more female sysadmins. It's merely an idea I haven't seen anyone else mention that is relevant to the conversations I've seen about the future of sysadmin as a profession.

    2. Does LISA use a double-blind submission process for papers? I ask because I've seen a couple of things that indicate that a double-blind process can result in more diversity of contributors and higher quality of papers/results, e.g.

    for a scholarly take:
    for a non-scholarly take: