WIT: My Opinion

July 27, 2013

Community, Conferences, Girl, Nerd, Opinion, WIT

This is a post I’ve started writing 7 different times. I’m not kidding. I have SEVEN different titles in my Live Writer drafts, ranging from “The Boy in the Ballet,” (which I started after attending my daughters’ dance recital, where I couldn’t stop staring in fascination at the 1 or 2 boys onstage amidst 15 to 50 female ballerinas, during a time when I was hiding behind my hat at tech events) to “Don’t Call Me a Lady” (so named because I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t “be themselves” around me due to gender).


How do we get more “Diversity” (Women) in Technology?

This question was beat to death at Codemash this year. TO DEATH. (I attended my 3rd Codemash in January. If you haven’t been to one, you can read about what an amazing experience it is for me here. If you’re wondering who the heck I am, please read that post.)

But here’s the thing: the people asking these questions are the people making our community so great. They’re the conference organizers, the User Group leaders, the podcast creators, the people passionate enough about technology to facilitate a way to share knowledge. They’re the people who are able to make a difference, and from what I’ve seen, they’re really trying. Those asking these questions aren’t asking to make us feel different. They’re asking because they are truly looking for an answer; an answer to a really hard question.

What Can We Do?

I have no idea what “we” can do, but I can tell you what I’m trying to do.

All I feel power over, personally, is myself & how I present learning & STEM to my 2 daughters. Both of my girls are proud that their mom is a nerd “because nerds are cool.” They like math because we regularly talk about how good they are at math. My parents did that for me, and I truly believe they made me think I was born smarter & more capable than I actually was. That belief in myself has taken me far :)

I’m also working on my own speaking skills, because my biggest issue is fear of giving a crappy talk that wastes someone’s time (especially as a representative of all WIT). I have learned so much in the past few years, and am so grateful to the speakers I’ve learned from that I feel compelled to try to pay it forward.

“When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” -Toni Morrison

 

The Part That Really Sucks About the Gender Issue

It only takes one bad interaction or stupid public comment. ONE.

Conference organizers work tirelessly to create these wonderful community events.

Regardless of how great 99% of the encounters & sessions & experiences are, when that ONE guy shows slides with scantilly-clad women, it can paint the entire conference as gender-insensitive.

When some hired 3rd party opens an event with a stupid song with dancing girls dressed like the norm in an American NFL Half-time show, it paints an entire company’s persona.

That’s not fair to anyone. That sucks. But it’s the way it is. I’ve met many, many Microsoft employees & they’ve been nothing but inspiring, encouraging & supportive. Yet that ill-advised event still reflected poorly on them, because they worked for the same company & happen to be male. Not fair.

Stories like this make me realize & appreciate just how lucky I’ve been (fascinating read & one that makes me realize how lucky I am that one of MY first experiences in the community didn’t include a male speaker turning to me & asking if I’d provide blowjobs for all the guys there (WTF!)) BUT that was ONE stupid comment that resultantly “spoke for” male developers. That sucks. That’s not fair to any of us.

Although I’m saying this as someone who’s never been harassed at a conference, I AM saying this as someone who’s been surrounded by amazing people in our tech community who, I have no doubt, would do everything in their power to ensure it never happened again.

But guess what? I *have* felt “harassed” in my life, and it was just because we’re human beings. I was in my 20s. I empowered myself to utilize resources I had access to, to stop the madness. I had to call the police on someone who wouldn’t leave my apartment. It didn’t make the news. It wasn’t tied to WIT. It wasn’t tied to anything that spoke for all [people in said profession].

My husband had a crazy ex-girlfriend he had to call the police on, too, to get HER to leave HIS apartment & stop harassing HIM.

Things like this happen because people are human, not because most devs are male.

On Jan 13, I fav’d this Tweet:

Those articles are FANTASTIC, but once again, the tips are human. We keep tying these overarching human issues back to gender in technology space, when they *so* don’t belong in that narrow of a vertical.

On Donglegate

Similarly, on the flip side, it only takes ONE person with a personal agenda, who happens to be a woman, to OH a conversation & Tweet it and set ALL women in this space back. Conferences ARE a safe place. If you don’t use the law of two feet, you’re doing it wrong. Tweeting an OH’d double entendre without extending basic human courtesy violates that human safety in the worst way.

I am learning that I’m no more insecure than the next introvert, regardless of gender… and no more mature, and I like it. I like euphemisms. I like to laugh my ass off. It’s about respect & intention.

In a career where we all THINK for a living, and we’re all learning together & from each other as frameworks & methodologies evolve, we ALL experience the imposter syndrome. Euphemisms are ridiculously great tools, especially in this community. Call them what you will, but quick-witted immature humor does WONDERS for leveling the field on a personal level, when we’re surrounded by those whose reputations precede them & who inspire, awe & intimidate us mentally or professionally.

So that’s my beef, I think, with Donglegate. It made me feel unsafe too. I curse like a sailor and could have EASILY been the one making that dongle joke if someone had left themselves wide open (har). They’re just funny. Harmless and funny, and I like to laugh, a lot…. and now I’m afraid I’ll be seen as “someone you have to watch yourself around” because she represented my gender. Everyone lost.

p.s. I shouldn’t have to say this, as I hope it’s clear this blog is about human decency. Clearly, there’s a difference between the Donglegate incident (where a picture was Tweeted without the “offenders” being addressed first), and something like this incident. A story that includes, “He responded by jamming his hand into my underwear and fumbling” is beyond the scope of human decency, and something like THAT is what I meant above, when I said, “I AM saying this as someone who’s been surrounded by amazing people in our tech community who, I have no doubt, would do everything in their power to ensure it never happened again.”

HUMAN incidents like this happen everywhere, not just in tech communities. The ties to WIT & events (where those ties are the headline) that go viral make me very sad. I’ve been to Codemash 3 times, and would hate for someone to blog an issue like this & tie it to an event so personally special to me. I can’t imagine my husband saying, “why would you go to that? This post said guys can’t be trusted there,” when it’s so the opposite of what I’ve seen & experienced. That would be heartbreaking. 

By outing that ONE offender publicly, an unrelated picture was painted, not only for that event, but for the entire gender spectrum, and I don’t know what to do with that. I am not saying we can let something like that go, but I personally think it’s very wrong to give an incident like that a permalink that ties it to a particular conference or person. If you have video proof, take it to the police & deal with it appropriately. There just has to be a better way for adults to behave than publicly naming & shaming someone. Everyone loses.

How would I prefer to see something like this handled? If it’s something that one thinks will help people by reading the story, maybe it can be told as more of an anonymous “how to deal with situations that get out of hand” post, that describes an incident without using names of people & events.  I have not walked in these shoes, but see the carnage these ties cause. Those close to the events will know who (or ask), and those not close to the events won’t get their 1st impression of a conference they might not of heard of as one filled with sexual harassment due to that personal (potentially he-said she-said), globally human issue.

It is important that we all see how important respect & boundaries are, and become more aware of how important it is for all of us to be hyper-aware of the importance of looking out for each other, across & within our tech community families. For the love of our great community, people, don’t name names, for goodness sake, and don’t name conferences. It’s not fair to anyone. Everybody loses.

On the “Women of Codemash” Picture

I’d be interested to know how many women actually were registered at Codemash this year. This year’s (2013) ”Women of Codemash” picture turnout seemed TINY

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compared to last year’s (2012) picture:

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…and I SWEAR I saw more women than ever this year (or so it seems?). So where were they? Why were so many missing from the picture?

My belief is that it was a combination of communication & boycotting. I talked to quite a few who didn’t want to be a part of the picture because they were so sick of the WIT question & just wanted to be seen as a person.

I get that:

But I digress… regarding the term, “nerd,” everything about me feels like the stereotype… except that part that made me name this blog Truncated CoDr.
 
I am female. I am blonde. I am uncomfortable with that. This is why:

I have never been able to relate to the stereotypical “American Girl.” The fact that it’s not only socially acceptable, but expected to not only act, but BE stupid if you’re a female in America makes me lose my mind. The stereotypes – even on the Disney channel – make girls either stupid or bitchy, and that is not ok. I did not like that before I was a parent, and now that I have 4yo & 7yo girls, it is even more frustrating.
 
As one who truly identifies with the “nerd” stereotype, I also do NOT like attention. I try to avoid it, often hiding under ballcaps at conferences or events.
 
But attention still finds me of late, because I look different.

Yes, I just quoted myself (is that weird?). That was an excerpt from my 1st blog post, written in March of 2011.

After the outpouring of support from ALL in our wonderful community, I blogged this a few months later:

I no longer think my fear of walking into that first tech event was about gender. Sure, more men are programmers right now. I believe that will change naturally & dramatically in the next few generations because programming is becoming more approachable.

I “left society” for a few years to have babies (while working in my new career as a programmer, so I didn’t talk to very many people at work during that time), and when I “came back”, I had no idea who I was.

I lost my identity & became very insecure as a result.

I now notice a LOT of people who “look different” at meetings. I’m sure it was just as hard for them to walk into that first meeting room full of strangers as it was for me. We all have our differences. We all have our insecurities. My “one of these things is not like the other” instinct made me blame the easy visual (I’m a girl) instead of what I now believe to be the real reason (what I’ve seen referred to as imposter syndrome): Fear I might not be a “real” programmer.

And guess what? I don’t feel like a girl any more at events. I feel like a person. And it’s awesome.

Spousal Support

If my spouse wasn’t so supportive, I can’t imagine being able to keep up with the churn of learning new technologies, since that part mostly happens after work hours.

If my spouse wasn’t so supportive, I can’t imagine being able to voluntarily attend so much as an occasional evening user group meeting (he has to pick up the kids from school, feed them, make sure their homework is done, take them to dance if it’s a Monday or Thursday, & put them to bed since almost all of our Dallas-area User Group meetings are scheduled from 6pm-9pm). I don’t know of many husbands willing to do that.

If my spouse & I didn’t have such a trusting relationship, I can’t imagine being able to voluntarily attend something like Codemash or ThatConference (especially when my company didn’t send me, it’s all been out-of-pocket, and I always talk his head off about the amazing people I met are, who mostly happen to be of the opposite gender). Many of you know how it feels to hide the fact that a female even attended an event (I’ve seen it many times), so guys – imagine telling your wives you’re going out of town to an event where MOST of the attendees are the opposite gender. This is human nature. Trust beyond jealousy & insecurity is a rare & precious thing.

On Meritocracy & Being An Influencer

This week’s “The Impact of a Compliment” story, summarized here, resonated with me for similar reasons as those I’ll mention below. This response does a good job explaining why:

image

Being someone who has a fond respect for meritocracy, I’ve really struggled with the concept of being treated differently because I look different.  I want to earn it. I want to feel like I’ve earned it. I want to be proud of the effort I put forth to earn it. 

I have been asked to speak at events that closed their Call for Speakers, and I used to be really bothered by how unfair that was to those who worked so hard to submit talks & actually WANTED to speak.

Then I stepped back & realized how challenging it is to find women speakers. No matter how much I don’t want to “speak for all women,” I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’ve been dealt that card.

Moments like this are profound:

image 0726.image_5F00_0BF37073[1]

This, too, reaches way beyond the WIT topic to core human nature. I love Hanselman’s statement: “My boys will grow up in a country that values people of all kinds, including ones that look like them.

It’s something that, if you don’t know what it’s like or how it feels to stand out or be different AND not know if you fit in, it’s impossible to describe.

After seeing Toi Wright speak for the 1st time at Dallas ASP.NET UG, I went up to her and said, “how do you DO that – speak in front of all of these guys?” She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “What, them? These are my peeps.” That’s when I realized it’s in my head. My battle’s with me, but I had to see an example I could relate to, before exploring that conclusion seemed approachable.

Going back, once again, to my argument that the WIT “issues” are less WIT & more mankind, it is human nature to categorize or box something or someone right away. Our brains associate what we see with what we know – that’s just how they work. I do that. I need to do that. If that weren’t true, every speaker wouldn’t feel compelled to start their talks with a “who I am” slide that shows credentials to basically prove they can be quickly boxed as competent. Page 6 of “Representation” by Steve Baker has an interesting read on how humans process stereotypes as representations, in a way unique to our own experiences.

This is why it’s important to understand & respect the impact & the power we, as WIT, might have, no matter how much we don’t (or do) want to be seen as a role model.

The simple act of SEEING a competent, confident woman in this space can be so powerful it’s frightening & it’s humbling, but it’s so very, very important.

It is for these reasons that I joined Toastmasters in January, and agreed to submit a talk to That Conference with Keith Dahlby. It was accepted, and I will be giving my 1st talk in a few weeks. I’m terrified, but I decided it’s important for me to try. I consider my love of problem-solving a true gift.  Coding brings me so much joy it’s insane. For me, speaking about technology is not about gender, and it is not about me. It’s about getting so excited about something I learn, that I want to shout it from the rooftops. It’s about sharing what I consider my most blessed gift, the gift of finding my passion. 

4 Comments on “WIT: My Opinion”

  1. xivsolutions Says:

    Great post! Balancing efforts at securing diversity within a subculture without creating discomfort and without casting advocates for such diversity as shrill activists is exceptionally challenging.

    You recognize what has always been one of my big philosophical talking points, namely, that to a large degree, we human animals have evolved to (subconsciously?) notice things like “this one looks/smells/acts like me, and THAT one does not.” Overcoming this tendency requires effort, at the individual and group level.

    Encouraging diversity requires a conscious effort. While we all (OK, MOST of us) intellectually recognize that we are all human, despite differences in appearance/gender/culture, etc, we all (OK, again MOST of us), left to our own devices, possess an innate tendency to gravitate to whichever sub-group causes us to feel most comfortable. Usually this happens in some order like:

    1. People I KNOW
    2. People I Recognize
    3. People who look/sound/dress like me

    When comfortable ensconced in our social group, we tend (to varying degree) to act/exhibit behaviors with which the group is familiar and to which other group members will respond favorably. The “group” as a whole, generally without realizing it, reinforces its separateness this way. Again, it takes conscious effort to modify group behavior in a manner which makes others feel welcome and wanted.

    I applaud your characterization of the WIT issue as not one of the technology industry, but instead one of the human race. As the old cliche goes, we will know we have succeeded when it is no longer a discussion topic.

    Reply

    • Gates VP Says:

      Thank you for this post and for several things:

      1. Acknowledging that this is, in part, just bad human behavior, regardless of the “tech” wrapper placed around it.
      2. Talking about this in terms of generations instead of “let’s fix this now”.

      I believe that will change naturally & dramatically in the next few generations because programming is becoming more approachable.

      3. Recognizing that women also have to be part of the socializing fix here: That’s when I realized it’s in my head. My battle’s with me,..

      I feel like many discussions on gender in tech completely miss these points. Bad stuff will happen and we probably won’t live the fruits of our attempts to fix the numbers.

      If I look around my office, it basically looks like my grad class from 10 years. And that’s my peer group. That’s not really going to change for the rest of my career. Any attempt to #changetheratio, seems unlikely because I can’t invent a new peer group with my education and experience level that happens to have more women.

      Reply

  2. Collin Says:

    I liked the post. It effectively conveyed something that’s clearly been on your mind for some time. Also, I’d like to say that, as a man, I don’t find stupid women more attractive than smart women are. Vapidity is annoying not alluring but maybe that’s just me. LOL!!!! I also totally agree that such bad incidents way outside the norm. Even in office almost entirely devoid of women, I’ve heard or seen a developer even hint at such behavior. In other less professional jobs, I have but not in my work as a developer. No reason to feel imperiled, ladies. :)

    Reply

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