Amongst other technical women, I’ve observed three broad phases when it comes to their feelings and attitudes with respect to the issues of women in tech. These are my unscientific and generalised observations.
Ignorance is Bliss
This phase is where women deny that there are any issues facing women in the industry, and sometimes even point to (some) guys as being worse off. They don’t notice gendered experiences, their own or other peoples – e.g. I once heard a women say “I’ve never experience any issue as a woman in tech”, and then immediately account a horrifyingly sexist remark someone had made to her.
They sometimes reject conventional femininity, by for example, always dressing in jeans and a tshirt (to be clear – not a judgement on people’s clothing choices, there are many reasons to reject conventional femininity, but whether they feel they have them – what’s interesting here is whether once they move into another phase they start dressing differently).
Mostly students and early career women, although some women manage to keep this up for a impressively long time (interesting perspective from one woman attributing this to Aspergers). As much as I sometimes find it difficult to interact with women in this group, I think women in this phase are the happiest – power to them.
Engineer it Better
This phase is where women have more awareness of the issues, through literature and have observed or experienced issues that they suspected were gendered.
Here, they have often accepted that they are different than the stereotypical techie – sometimes this manifests as choosing to dress how they want, and be willing admit to “girly” hobbies or interests. They get involved in women’s events, read up on literature, look for ways to support other women.
The key thing here, is recognising there is a problem but believing that things will change and our actions will make a difference. It is also being able to shrug off the gendered experiences, as not being the norm. Also here, they recognise and appreciate the occasional things that are better for women – the network of other technical women, for example. It’s a necessary support network, but wow is it amazing. There’s the occasional extra opportunity, for example recruiters and teams looking harder to find women, rather than expecting women to come to them (necessary because women are more likely to underestimate themselves, but still – nice), or many companies (Cisco, IBM, and others) run internal programs aimed at developing women leaders.
These women are hyper-aware, familiar with the depressing nature of the numbers and the research (for example the downward trend since the 80s). They have experienced and witnessed sufficient gendered situations that they have lost the ability to shrug things off and instead may find themselves braced for them.
Here, there are low expectations for the future and the morality of encouraging future generations of women may even be questioned. Yes it will be better for the world if we have a more diverse representation of humanity building the digital experience, but for any individual this may well not be the case (consider the statistic that 63% of women report being sexually harassed).
This is where women drop out. Either actually dropping out, or by mentally dropping out and trying to find ways not to care as much – for example citing the job flexibility and the high pay as reasons to stay around, rather than what they are actually doing.
What To Do?
Since these phases seem to come with information and experience, it is extremely hard to move back to a previous phase, and (short of drugs and/or a major head trauma) it seems impossible to move back to “Ignorance is Bliss”. Once you have noticed, there is no un-noticing. The best we can hope for is to prolong each one, but especially the middle phase.
There is a catch-22 here, in that the existence of “Ignorance is Bliss” slows down progress. One woman thinking there is no issue is often presented as over-riding all statistics, which is ridiculous, but prevalent. However, without this phase, if every 18 year-old-girl entering university knew the statistics and recognised the issues, I don’t believe we would even be hitting the measly not-even-15% we are (US and Canada).
I think the key is managing burnout, and maintaining hope.
We need to remember why it is that we want to be in this industry. Shanley wrote a good post about this recently.
Make time to remind ourselves why we want to be an engineer. For me, this is because I love to make things. So, I look for projects where I can feel a sense of satisfaction – regular milestones, regular shipping (in a little less than 3 years, I’ve worked on 3 new products). Places where I can focus on creating a great user experience, and ideally solving real-people-problems, not what in an angsty mood I would describe as “made-up-engineer problems”. Making time for personal projects also helps.
Let go of obligations. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by things that I’m being asked to help with, that will help other women. Making time to talk to someone, or take an interview, or speak at an event. I want to do all these things, but sometimes it is just too much, and I have taken to reminding myself that the best thing we can really do, is be great at and love our work. This means sometimes saying no, or taking a deliberate break, and being OK with that.
The network of fellow women is so important for me. Feeling alone in my worries, concerns, and negative experiences would make me feel like I was going mad. When I’m feeling despondent about something, and I read about someone else’s similar experience or situation… it’s a sign, that as much as there may be wrong with me, there’s a fundamental problem in this industry that is far bigger than my flaws as an individual. And as I work to always be better, nicer, more effective… I can also work to find situations where it is easier to be better (hostile situations rarely bring out the best in anyone).
This week it’s the Grace Hopper Conference. This will be my fourth year attending. Every year, I meet amazing, amazing women, listen to amazing talks, and leave with a bunch of new ideas and information. It’s my shot of hope, that I need to sustain me for another year, or at least until the next one is close enough to look forward to.
Role models, I think, are key for hope, feeling that there is a career path and that other people have thrived in similar situations and with similar experiences. I imagine that internal programs for women also help with this. The network of technical women helps with this – the high profile women, the Marissa Mayer’s and the Sheryl Sandberg’s don’t actually give me that much hope (especially when I see the press about them), the more normal-seeming women who seem to be enjoying their work and their life are much more immediately inspiring to me.
Only in the tech industry is a middle-class white woman “diversity”. I had a very privileged upbringing, and whilst my university experience was hard because of feeling other, and displays of rampant sexism (watching so many of the other women in my class be portrayed as the “token girl” in the group project exercise for example), I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been whilst say, struggling to make ends meet, or dealing with the extra challenges of being a “visible minority”.
So if we could just keep reminding ourselves what equality really means, that might be a start.