Thursday, March 8, 2012

What can the sysadmin community do to be more inclusive of women?

What can the sysadmin community do to be more inclusive to women?

Part 2 of the conversation about women in sysadmin. [1] Last time I asked if we were a friendly community. Many who answered the question thought it was getting worse for women. Hmm...

As a friend posted to Facebook "The sysadmin community isn't inviting to anyone."

Have we created a community around our profession that leaves one with the impression that nobody is welcome? That doesn't bode well for the profession. In reality, I know a lot of men and women in our community who are actively trying to change these negative stereotypes.

Many of the women I've spoken to about sysadmin conferences and the community have tried, a few times, to throw themselves into the general pool. They've felt like outsiders or had encounters with awkward or creepy men so they've made the decision to stay away.

It seems the alternative is women finding or creating their own groups outside of the general community. Is there still interest in the general sysadmin community? I think the sysadmin community offers some wonderful opportunities for professional advancement and I'm not the only one who believes this. If so, how do we show these talented tech women that they are welcome?

I've heard that there are a lack of role models, but role models aren't enough. In groups that look for new members, "who you know" is still known to be the most common recruitment mechanism. If the community is mostly men, who know mostly men then it follows that new members to the community will also be men. Maybe what we need is outreach by the women who are part of the community? Successful women who have found their way can extend a hand to their peers who haven't made it through the door yet.

  • Feel free to contact me if you want to give the LISA conference a chance. I'd be happy to be your first contact at LISA so you go to the conference knowing someone.
  • I'm also available to assist with paper submissions.
  • I also plan to have a women of sysadmin birds of a feather (BOF) session on Wednesday to allow all of us to make some connections within the community.

What can you do?
  • Resist imposter syndrome. When you feel that nagging voice inside, call upon some reserve confidence. The guys aren't always sure of themselves either.
  • Actively work to stop inequalities in hiring, management, and treatment of other sysadmins (this goes for anyone, not just women). Men and women can contribute to our success here.
  • Get to know other sysadmins. Create your own place in the community. If you know nobody, I recommend starting with LOPSA. Just joining isn't enough:
    • Join the lopsa-tech mailing list,
    • hang out in the #lopsa irc channel,
    • attend one of the LOPSA local conferences: PICC or Cascadia or
    • contact LOPSA to become part of the mentoring program either as a mentor or as a mentee.
  • Join us at LISA. Hey, I'm not doing my job as program chair if I don't say this. Seriously, I have been going to LISA since 1995 and I have found it to be one of the biggest professional steps I take for myself. Sure, my employer benefits from having a sysadmin who got a week away from the office, some additional tech training and ideas for the future. The real benefit has always been to me as a professional. It's the people and possibilities that I get there that really keep me going. It's my annual trek for a professional recharge.
  • Reach out. Do you see another woman hanging out on the fringe at a community event? Walk up and introduce yourself. She may know nobody and not know how to take that first step.

These things may seem small but every opportunity we give ourselves or someone else increases our overall success. If you help 2 people and each of them helps another 2 people, our community will grow more diverse over time. I think it's a win-win to shape the culture into one that is more diverse.

If the community is about broadening your professional network and making contacts, then it seems both sides are missing out by avoiding the connection.

It isn't just a women's problem. If people want to see better diversity (race, religion, orientation, gender, etc.) then all sides need to step up and commit to supporting change.

What are the next steps?

[1] I understand there are other underrepresented groups. I'm just talking about women today but maybe some of this conversation will benefit others. That would be great too.

'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.' - Eleanor Roosevelt

It isn't just the IT industry either. The literary world has their own gender issues.


  1. As a former server admin and Cisco networker, I must add a note about safety. I stopped working after 20 years of physical & verbal intimidation. 20 years of reporting to management that in turn becomes threatening and intimidating towards women who report any threatening, insulting, inappropriate and unbusinesslike behavior on the part of their male coworkers. 20 years of being denied training until the men are trained first. 20 years of being kept at the bottom of the rung while fixing problems and designing solutions that the men couldn't figure out. Please develop some guidelines and some support for women in the datacenter.

  2. This sounds like an awful working environment. I hope you have found an employer that is more supportive. What did you do at the time to address these issues?

    I think someones women are afraid to come forward. Each of us has our own threshold or tolerance for the activities of others. I think sometimes women feel like they will be chicken little if they report harassment. We should be able to stand up and report threatening or abusive situations without negative recourse against us for doing so. I know that is not the case everywhere.

  3. In response to UnPixie, my employers have been SAIC, CSC, CDSI, ATI. And the situation has always been the same. Of course, this is the South, but the companies are national, and management is brought in from around the nation.

    1. Has it improved any in 20 years? I think sometimes the reporting mechanisms create their own strife. Who wants to work for an employer that forced you to go to HR or EEO to get fair treatment (that's rhetorical). My experiences were much worse 20 years ago but maybe I've found an enlightened employer.