Career women in computer science

The #NotAllMen Project

Danbo meets Domo
Credit: Flickr / Guillermo Viciano

Last week featured two milestones. I closed the first day of JSConfEU with a talk called “Some Things I’ve Learned about Color”, which is the story of how I left tech (not why). It’s about burnout, and how aside from overwork, there are 5 other things that cause it: lack of control, lack of reward, lack of community, unfairness, and mismatched values. It’s about how I used side projects to give me those things. This is how I built something to walk towards, which is what gave me the strength to walk away.

The other milestone was that I completed my list of 10 men in tech I don’t hate. A project that lasted nine months, and spanned three continents.

It started with a joke, and it didn’t make sense to everyone. But it came from a real conversation: I didn’t leave because I don’t love to code (I do!) or lead teams (I do!), because I don’t want to make things (I love making things). But once I was free, I realised that I was no longer constantly on edge, waiting for some new horrible thing to happen. It’s hard being surrounded by dudes, and when you’ve got to a point where the distinction you make between them is their calculated threat vector, well…

All year I have asked myself the question “what would I need to go back?” and 9 months ago when this project started it was because one thing was the ability to walk into a place of 70-90% dudes and not panic. It was to expect more than I had become accustomed to from the men I had worked with.

And obviously #notallmen but #somemen and frankly #enoughmenforittobeaproblem.

But how does a technical woman meet men in tech? Because as I had become more and more jaded I had retreated more and more to a network of women (although many women’s groups are also problematic, particularly from an intersectional point of view).

Of course there are meetups, but let me tell you some of my experiences from the last few months at tech events. I have been drunkenly hugged. Had a man following me around. Nervously avoided someone I had blocked on Twitter (for a reason). Had someone tell me that looking up android documentation was “cute”.

As far as things go, these are mild. But they are enough that I prefer to go to events only with friends, and enough to make my anxiety about large groups of mainly men seem rational.

The answer: introductions. I travel a lot, and but mostly people would introduce me to other women, so clearly I needed to ask to be introduced to men. And clearly I wanted to be introduced to decent men. Hence: the project. Because skepticism aside, people introduced me. And it gave me a reason to say, “hey, I’m working on this list, will you have coffee with me?” in a way where it was clear that a) there were no potential romantic undertones, and b) I wasn’t asking for anything other than an hour of their time. This wasn’t an informational interview, I didn’t want anything, other than hope.

The process evolved, and eventually I distilled it to: we spend time 1:1 and talk about work-things. Development. Process. Culture. And I would ask myself, “what if this person was my peer? Would I feel comfortable around them? Would they listen to me?” or “what if this person was my boss? Would I trust them?” I asked these questions not because I was auditioning people to potentially work with/for, but because I was trying to conceive of a male-dominated environment that was less scary than what I had previously experienced.

I was introduced to (or took an online connection offline) with a variety of men, a number of whom have significant career achievements. So one side effect that the economic power of my network has gone up. In retrospect, this seems obvious: men dominate the tech industry in numbers, and their power is even more disproportionate. A network dominated by women has less power, and any steps towards redressing that balance will increase it. Add to that phenomena like the glass cliff, because even when women do have power, they are often constrained in other ways.

One of the things I mentioned in “Some Things I Learned About Color” was working on a project that was failing and having this terrible manager who believed that by never giving me positive feedback he was training me not to need it (spoiler: this didn’t work). A guy who had always looked out for me helped me get out of there, and off a work permit. Of three contracts I’ve worked on this year, one guy saw my work, and appreciated it, and I started working with him, and he advocated me for a second contract too. The third, I know a powerful man saying that I was a good person for it made a big difference.

There was all this stuff last year about male allies and how we “need to involve men” and I was pretty vocal about a lot of it being a bad idea. I don’t think we need to put men on stage, especially not at women’s conferences. What we do need men to do, is engage themselves in the careers of their women peers. In fact we all need to do that for the people who don’t look like us, and as a result have less economic opportunity.

A third milestone last week was that I moderated my first panel. Marco (aka #10), was on it, and made the observation that network effects were huge, and a significant impediment to hiring a diverse team, because it’s so much easier (and faster) to hire white dudes. How do we improve our networks for this? We meet people who don’t look like us.

The thing I’m taking from this project is hope (and some awesome new friends). The thing I think you should take from it is: Make a list. Don’t make a list. Whatever. But go and meet some people who don’t look like you… and start by talking about all the things you have in common.

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