Male Allies and GHC

strings of a broken heart
Credit: DeviantArt / DubiousOrchid

This year will be my 5th year at GHC (Grace Hopper Celebration, the annual conference for technical women from the Anita Borg Institute), my first speaking, and my first in my new post-corporate-job life. It’s been blocked on my calendar since last year, and there has been a long lead time, which means I made the transition from corporate job to independent knowing that GHC was going to be expensive as a result, but deciding that it was worthwhile and not worth delaying the rest of my life over.

There are a few things that have irritated me about the process for speakers. Mostly, I think, around ensuring that people are prepared. You have to send your slides in advance, and use their slide template, etc. Speakers don’t get free, or even discounted, tickets. Which is fine when you work for Big Tech Company, but as an independent is pricey. Students speaking have loads of scholarships available to them, and universities to sponsor them.

A common thread I hear from friends is that GHC is for students, or for really senior women (I managed to get into the Senior Women’s forum once, and the women I met were amazing). What if you’re in between? And it’s aimed at companies, because it’s a recruiting machine for women and most tech companies throw money at recruiting more women to the pipeline full of acid rather than actually doing anything about the acid.

I’ve sympathised, and defended, explained my approach to being pickier about what talks I attend, and making the most of the women that I meet up with every year. I quit corporate feminism over a year ago, so last year I went incognito – I wore nothing branded with the company I worked for, I did not interview, I did not spend time at the booth. This was a different experience than previous years and one that I needed, but I know women at other tech companies where recruiting and being constantly branded is the price you pay for the ticket.

It’s become harder and harder to defend. And now, there’s going to be a male allies panel, this is the last thing – it is about companies, not about the women who suffer in them. And I’ve been tweeting about this, so here’s my long form take.

There’s a lot of discussion about women in tech, and there’s this constant refrain of “what about the men” and I am tired of hearing it. It’s not about the men. It’s about women, and other minorities (who have it far worse). The fact that (some) men have made this, like everything, about them is illustrative of the problem.

The men who get it need to talk to the ones that don’t, and you don’t find many that don’t get it at at a conference of 99% women. Last year, as part of “the Australian contingent”, there were 3 guys with us. They came to listen. And for once, they were the minority.

I actually agree with Shanley, (I paraphrase), the system is broken and what we need to do is burn the system down.

But if we’re not ready to burn yet (and with men in charge, will that ever come?) maybe we can keep pushing on the system to make it a little less broken, but this is how we survive, and stay – for now. Within this, there are two separate things: how do we make the line between being a bitch and a pushover wider, and how do we walk it more effectively. Lean In (Amazon) is mostly about walking that line more effectively. There’s space for that, and people who may find it useful, but it’s not the whole story.

There are different classes of problems in Diversity. Easy is fixing your marketing materials. Easy is throwing money at recruiting.

Moderate is throwing money internally (training, minority groups), because (some) men will complain “it’s not fair”. Moderate is handling egregiously gendered interactions, sexual harassment, words use to and about women, and only women. The more blatant versions of “get back in the kitchen”, usually served with a side of poor understanding of biology.

Hard is promoting the qualified woman when there is also a qualified man. Hard is dealing with the more subtle gendered interactions – when he repeats everything she says in a meeting, for example. When she doesn’t get to say anything in the meeting, because he answers everything for her. When he publicly undermines her. Gendered performance feedback.

Extra hard is taking the woman whose belief in herself has been stamped out of her by all the things that were never dealt with, because they were too hard, finding her a good manager, a good project, and helping her rebuild her self-confidence. Extra hard is being a sponsor, believing in someone who The System has told so loudly she doesn’t belong that she has come to believe it.

Within this, there are different levels. It’s easy to deal with egregiously gendered things, but do you have to have them pointed out to you or do you notice? The same within the subtle ones.

Some people are still stuck on the easy problems, but at GHC I’d like to think that we could focus on the hard problems. And the thing about the companies represented on the male allies panel, is there is little evidence to suggest they have moved past the easy ones, and one of them only managed that in the last year.

Two of them have not released diversity data (although I did get some info in response to this tweet). The other two have 15 and 17% women in tech roles respectively, and do not clarify the definition of tech so it may well be broader than the Eng/UX/PM that has been decried elsewhere.

Alan Eustace is from Google, and I used to work there so I know that he is a fantastic ally. He’s the only man who I have ever taken advice from on dealing with the emotional toll of women in tech stuff, which is because he is the only man who has ever offered advice on the topic that wasn’t just telling me how to feel.

But. Even with that, the numbers are terrible. If the experience for women was better, the numbers would be.

So what is this panel going to be? Is it going to be discussing how you can care so much, and work so hard, and achieve so very little because the entrenched problems are too great?

Or is it just going to be a celebration of managing the easy things. Of crawling over that exceptionally low bar of sexist marketing materials. Of focusing on the pipeline rather than the women who are already here. Or I should say, at the expense of the women who are already here, because it takes up their time, and corporate feminism takes it’s toll.

GHC could do better. GHC could do the hard things.


Edited October 2nd to clarify what GHC is.

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