Saturday, March 24, 2012

It's a community issue

It's a community issue...

The last time I wrote, I made suggestions to women in system administration, what they could to do address some of the issues we face in the community and our profession. I realize this isn't just a women's issue, it is a community issue. If we want better diversity and the benefits of all of the capable tech people, then we need to adjust our gauges so we aren't just observing, but actively engaging our community. Asking both men and women to be part of the solution has broad reaching implications. Those who don't get it will find themselves in the minority as more people support the diverse path. As I said in a previous post, I hope these conversations have a positive impact on all tech people who face stereotyping and discrimination in our community.

It seems like a lot of people are writing about women in tech at the moment. Maybe they always have been and I'm only just noticing. I've spent the last few weeks reading writings by other people discussing the challenges women face in technology careers. As a result of my lurking, I have a few observations from the various viewpoints I've read and my own experiences.

Be open to our differences.

I'm gonna start with the guys. Consider your words before you speak and your deeds before you act. Realize that we are all calibrated differently based on our wiring and experiences. What doesn't offend me might offend another because of these differences. Try to be open to comment and critique of your actions and improve your outlook based on your interactions with people, both men and women, who contribute to your betterment. Don't judge us when we speak up. Many women hesitate to speak up when they feel there is an injustice because we fear being labeled, criticized or threatened by you. Sometimes you may think we overreact, but please give us the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this is the third time today we've heard the same negative reference or seen a woman objectified. A person can only take so much and even the most accepting person reaches her limit at some point.

It wasn't that long ago that women did not have careers outside the home, that we were considered the lesser sex, that men thought we needed to be taken care of and provided for. We are playing catchup for decades of these attitudes. We could sure use your respect and encouragement.

Now I'd like to speak to the women. There will always be some men who don't get it. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I know a lot of guys who will call out a peer who is being disrespectful or oppressive toward women. Somewhere in the middle are the men with varying levels of clue. I believe that many of the guys have good intentions. I encourage you to give the benefit of the doubt where possible. Use awkward[1] conference moments as teaching opportunities. Some tech guys are used to their insular environments. Seeing a smart, geeky, tech woman might be the equivalent of spotting a unicorn for these people. This doesn't excuse bad behavior but it might explain some of the social awkwardness we experience at tech events.

[1] Note I said "awkward" not "threatening." If you ever feel threatened in a conference environment, get out of the situation and tell someone: an organizer, staff of the sponsoring organization.

Men, Speak Up

Women should be able to speak up, but that isn't always easy or possible. Sometimes when a woman speaks up, she is treated with derision or threatened (or even feels threatened). There's a recent example on twitter between the founders of Geeklist and @shanely. Review the conversation and come to your own conclusions.

We've learned from experience that speaking up sometimes results in a bad scene, labeling, ostracizing. She used to be fun until she spoke up for gender equality and now she's a wet blanket. Don't include/invite her. Really? I'm sorry she rained on your parade, but it really bothered her what you said/did. Go back to "Be open to our differences" please.

When men speak up to other men, it is one of their own calling them out. If what you said or did offended another of your gender, you must need some behavior modification! It's hard to call a guy an overly-sensitive female when he tells you that you're out of line. I'm sure some men reserve their bad behavior for times when women are out of earshot. It doesn't make it any better because it continues to encourage a divide between the genders. Enlisting both men and women to help increase awareness and reduce negative stereotyping helps us all in the end.

It doesn't mean we need to be saved or we need men to fix things. It's a community issue. Our community is stronger when everyone has a chance to be part of it, not just one gender or one race or one orientation. Those of us, both men and women, who speak out for each other help create a better community. Thank you guys! I know who some of you are and I have the highest respect for you.

People are sometimes attracted to one another.

We don't have control over our internal reaction to someone for which we feel an attraction. We do have control over what we say and do about it. In the right situation, two people might try to get to know one another. In a professional situation such as an IT conference, we don't do this. We stifle the feelings of attraction. Even when there are social gatherings and alcohol that allow the brain to let down its guard, we should not see the IT conference as a dating pool (for either gender). What does a guy do who is attracted to another guy at a conference? I've gotta think that there is still professional respect between these two parties. There isn't a tech woman I know who attends a technical conference to hook up with you, so don't use it as your personal singles bar.

Women fight strong stereotypes.

Yes our repressive history is still fresh in our minds. My mother's generation did not have the opportunities I have, nor the opportunities my daughter will have. That's one part of this. It takes generations to change cultural beliefs like these. Even as we make progress with each new generation, we continue to face a media machine that does a great job of fortifying the image of women as sex symbols. I can barely take a step without tripping over a magazine, billboard, web site, etc. displaying a voluptuous overly-made-up woman displaying a lot of skin and a sultry look. Both men and women are faced with these images daily. What does this do to the man/woman professional relationship? I believe it must have an impact. I'm not going to blame media for all of our woes, but there are times that I wonder if those images aren't making it harder for us to be taken seriously (Cheesy Enjoli commercial from the 70s/80s comes to mind--arg).

I don't know how to combat these stereotypes other than to be the best professional person I can be and try not to let gender play into my career. I spent the first 10 years of my tech career downplaying my femaleness and hoping that my abilities would speak for themselves. It made me one of the guys and led me to shun femininity. I thought it was necessary to fit into the male culture. I'm not sure if it was necessary but it was the tool I employed to attempt to bridge the gap between me and everyone else.

We're still women.

Sometimes I want to be seen as a person and sometimes I want to be a woman. Jewelry, perfume, dresses and nice shoes... some women still like that stuff along with technology. Why can't we have both?

As I mentioned above, I stifled my gender to fit in. I did this by wearing shapeless clothes, no makeup and acting like one of the guys. It wasn't really acting, I acclimated to a male culture fairly effectively. I found that, as a result, I didn't have much in common with other women. I felt adrift and uncomfortable if I ended up in a conversation about cosmetics, clothes, "cute" guys or, gossip. I played along when I had to but I couldn't wait to get back to my androgynous role. I admit, it made me feel a bit like an oddity. I wasn't a guy and I didn't fit in with women. It has taken me several years to become comfortable in my own skin. I had to accept being a woman and allow myself to not be afraid of that fact. I wouldn't recommend to a woman starting out in the profession that she mask her femininity to be one of the guys.

In my recent readings, I became an observer to a thread relating to this topic. The women in the thread started talking about how much they liked coding, computers, technology but they still liked nail polish, high heels, the color pink, dresses and other accoutrements of our gender. These varying interests don't diminish the women's contribution to the technical professions. It makes them that much more human to admit who they really are, despite stereotypes. We shouldn't have to repress the things that make us unique in order to fit in with the other gender in our community. There should be room for men and women with all of their varying likes and passions as long as they don't impose upon or oppress the opposite gender.

Are we the weaker sex?

Some of the angst I've had in my readings has been the advice to women, men, employers, managers on how to make business more appealing and friendly to women. This one just bothers me for some reason. For example, there have been a couple of different write-ups that specifically recommend avoiding the use of masculine words because those don't appeal to women and cause less women to apply for jobs using those words. Some of these hot-button words include leader, assertive, driven, ambitious.

Seriously? These are masculine words? I see myself as all of these things. None of these words would scare me away from a job posting if I thought the rest of the job sounded interesting. Some of the suggested replacements included the following: understand, compassionate and nurturing. How many system administrator job descriptions have you seen use the words compassionate and nurturing?

Do employers really need to stop using the earlier "masculine" words in order to attract more women or can we, as women, learn to see ourselves as driven, ambitious, assertive leaders? If I'm a hiring manager and I need someone who is driven and a good leader, I don't care if that person is a man or a woman, but I can't see changing the job description to remove those words if they are key to the role.

So for those women who say "that's fine, but I don't want to..."

I understand that it gets old feeling like all of the responsibility lies with you. As a woman in tech, you aren't required to fix all of the problems you see. I only suggest things we can do, collectively, to make the community stronger. So...
  • I've heard women say that they don't like to hold the responsibility for representing the entire gender. Then don't. You really only represent yourself. No one can force you to represent all woman-kind. If the men are going to generalize for our entire gender based on interactions with you, then that's their problem.
  • For those women who don't feel like they should be responsible for social interactions with awkward male geeks. Then don't. Again, it isn't your responsibility. I feel like it's easier to talk to a guy who seems socially awkward then to constantly feel awkward because he's not approaching me to talk.
If you just want to attend a professional event without turning it into a feminist rally, then go and have a great time. Don't feel that every event has to turn into a teaching moment. I spend a week at LISA every year and I certainly don't walk the halls looking for unenlightened men to engage.

Parting thoughts

I understand this one writeup won't solve all of our issues. There are complexities and situations that cannot be addressed here and those must be addressed at the time and with the appropriate people.

I would love to see my professional community welcome and encourage all interested parties regardless of gender, color, orientation, etc. There is already a pretty solid group of sysadmins in the LOPSA and USENIX organizations that believes this too. We have a good start. There will always be some percentage of attendees or members who don't get it or are unable to see how their behavior creates an unfriendly environment. Let's make them the minority!


Someone asked me to include some links that I read. I wish I had saved them all. Here are a few:

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