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Practical Solutions for the (lack of) Women in Tech issue

Geek Girls

Earlier this week I participated in a panel to discuss the perennial question of ‘why aren’t more women involved in tech and what can we do about it’. It’s always a treacherous discussion to get involved in and if you think you know how it would have played out, you’re probably right, except you probably wouldn’t have expected Milo to have been quite as … let’s go with ‘provocative’ as he was.

It is very difficult to engage with this subject area without offending people, people people feel excluded or defensive – the sad thing is that I don’t think anyone who tries to start these conversations  intends to do any of these things (and many thanks to Mike Butcher for finding a place for this discussion in the GeeknRolla program).

What we want is something practical we can do about it.

There was on this panel, and elsewhere, a lot of talk about improving the ‘image’ of tech so that is is more appealing to women and infiltrating the education system, reaching women whilst they are still young girls and showing that tech can be a cool, sexy, creative and rewarding career. I think this is probably the best longterm strategy we can put in place and I’d love to help get involved in making this happen (ping me if you’ve got something going on already or need help getting something off the ground).

I also think there are a lot of women who ARE women in tech, but who define themselves as marketing people, or managers, or PR people or designers, or researchers who just happen to only ever work in the tech sector. I’m not sure if there is something we need to *do* about this, although I’m starting a personal (informal) research project to better understand why these women exclude themselves from the ‘women in tech’ label. Perhaps it’s the information architect in me, but I have a feeling that a lot of this is taxonomy / labeling related.

All of these are long term and somewhat philosophical. What can we do NOW?

I have TWO suggestions for what you can do RIGHT NOW that I think will start to make an immediate difference.

1. That woman you know who works in tech, who is really smart and talented and should be doing more. Give her a nudge and say ‘you could do that’, ‘you should do that’. Be directly encouraging.

I know we shouldn’t have to do this, but in my experience we do. Many of the smartest women I know do need a little encouragement to be a little bolder in the way that they present their work, whether that’s just writing a blog, getting up and speaking at a conference, or starting their own business. Having someone pick you out and say – yes, sure, you can do it, you should do it, just a tiny bit of encouragement and confidence building can be the spark that sets people on their path.

You may think it is obvious that your woman-friend/colleague has everything it takes to be ridiculously successful, but all too often the response you’ll get would be ‘do you think so? you really think I could do that?’

I don’t know why and for the moment I don’t really care why. Let’s just start giving individual people who we *know* have what it takes a nudge, a little confidence boost and see what happens.

2. Write & speak about women in tech, and do it respectfully and supportively

Aside from cold hard cash there are two other incredibly important currencies when it comes to professional success – respect and visibility. The way you choose to write and speak about women can make a big difference with regards to their access to both respect and visibility.

Let’s take a case study. Here’s an article that impromptu panel participant and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos wrote for the Telegraph covering the panel discussion and his thoughts on it. Let’s ignore his pretty woeful argument that there is no place for this discussion at these conferences and the way that he referred to women as ‘girls’ throughout the piece. Notice the difference in the way he treated contributions to the discussion from Sophie Cox and myself compared to those of Joshua March and Paul Walsh. Sophie and I get first name treatment only and no links (despite both being very easily Googled), Joshua and Paul get full names and at least one link (Paul gets two!).

On the surface, this may appear accidental, lazy, coincidental, but that fact is that even if Milo disagreed with the points that Sophie and I were making in the way he has presented us in this article we are utterly unimportant, except that we provide the foil for his argument. Joshua and Paul on the other hand are obviously important voices because of the way they are treated.

If you *really* want women in tech to be confident and successful in tech, then treat then a really great way to start is to give them respect and visibility and if as a part of your trade you happen to be writing then:

  1. write about them
  2. use their full names (and try to spell them correctly, ahem Guardian)
  3. link to them

Sometimes it’s the little things that really make a big difference.

Now go! Get to it!

Picture: (CC) Benjamin Ellis – benjaminellis.org and nabbed from the UK Techcrunch Post

17 Comments

  1. #3 thing you can do right now: Be a role model

    You do this Leisa, and I do it to. I get out there and do stuff. I take my fantastic daughter with me and remind other women that it is OK to go to industry breakfasts, dinners etc and show you are a woman and mother. I know this wouldn’t work for everyone, but we shouldn’t have to hide the fact that we are mothers and girl geeks at the same time.

  2. The “tech can be a cool, sexy, creative and rewarding career” could also be supplemented with considering how tech companies are often much more flexible when it comes to working arrangements such as working from home and flexible working hours.

    The skills are also extremely portable between countries (I’ve a girlfriend who’s a lawyer and is now basically locked into working in the UK since the training requires a huge investment and is only valid in the uk).

    Of course, these are not of interest just to women but since women often are forced to have more broken career paths (for better or worse) they are certainly factors which benefit women in tech.

  3. Agree with maadonna #3 thing you can do right now: Be a role model

    Leisa, your work is excellent to all people, but I know for a fact that a lot of UX women that I meet are truly inspired by the work you do and the profile you’ve built. So congrats :)

  4. Why is it that the only metric we seem to have in place for the success of women in technology is celebrity? All the argument that goes on in this sphere seems to be around the lack of women on stage at conferences – but why is that held up as the pinnacle of achievement, and why make women feel that they are failing if they don’t choose to compete in that arena?

    It seems like a very male point-of-view to see fame and visibility as the ultimate goal in your career.

    • Matthew, it’s not about celebrity it’s about visibility. They’re two very different things.

      Visibility is what makes people think about you when opportunities arise (like, do we know someone with this skillset who might want to be a part of our startup, for example).

      Getting up on stage at a conference isn’t the end game, it’s just a symptom of visibility, credibility and respect.

      • To inspire others, there must be those doing the inspiring.

        As has been alluded to, women need to be in family-friendly environments to successfully maneuver through life. Not fair, but will always be true. Male dominated work situations are stereotypically not family-friendly.

        Until female role models in tech become more visible, young women will choose careers that they know other women are choosing.

        Besides – men and women need to hear women, minorities of all stripes, and diverse points of view from the podium. How else will we learn, begin to empathize, grow as humans – and make better products?

  5. Thanks for the great read! Found your post through @FindingAda on Twitter.

    Encouragement is one the best things we can do for women in tech. Remind that they’re there because they’re smart; remind that they can do stuff if they just set their mind to it; ask them to step outside their comfort zone and speak at that conference, give a talk at the local LUG, or just put their name to some of the great work they do (a lot of women choose not to have public recognition of their work, which means women as technologists don’t get noticed in the public space); remind them to take the credit. Most of all, remind them to be role model; to be a mentor. And remind them that they’re wonderful. All tech women need to be told that every so often :)

    Women in tech who are looking for a support network, check out http://girlgeekdinners.com for a local chapter.

    L

  6. In my experience it’s almost a monoculture of men in the area of software development. This also includes areas such as graphics, icon design and the like. I don’t know why. I do know that monocultures are less durable in the face of environmental change.

  7. I have been in the PC-tech industry since 1983. In my experience woman are just as talented, capable and competent as any man. Generally I found women in the tech industry to be significantly better educated and qualified than their male counterparts.

    However there is one key difference in the tech industry that promotes the men well past the women and that is the hours per day they put into the job. The lady-techies (with very few exceptions) head home at 5 in the afternoon while the men put in the hours required by the job not by their employment contracts.

    Admittedly women have commitments – boyfriends, husbands, children, dinners to be cooked etc and they have a right to leading balanced lives. But the tech industry is one place where the winner is the first person to complete the job ASAP and if you have to sacrifice your personal life (and sleep) in order to put in the hours, you simply have to do it. For many (most?) women this is simply not an option.

    • This is something I raised on the panel on Tuesday – this compulsion to work a bazillion hours each week rules a LOT of women AND men out of contention for tech startups in particular. So you don’t have the best people working on the job, just the best (hopefully) of those willing/able to work those hours. Now let’s start talking about the quality of work generated in those circumstances, the relative importance of being first to market v best in market etc.

    • Not all women have to be home at 6pm to put the dinner on! (I personally have to get home to take the dog out…) But aside from this, working insane hours is not a sustainable way of life for women OR men – it ultimately takes its toll on health and personal relationships and certainly isn’t any measure of quality either. Sometimes extra work is required, but for anyone this should be the exception, not the rule. If it happens on a regular basis, then it’s generally due to an ineffectiveness of the development methodology or its implementation. I don’t know their ratio of male to female employees, but 37 signals work a 4 day week and are incredibly successful.
      I put in extra hours, but in my own time, to study and continually develop my skills as a practitioner and teacher, and I believe this IS a necessity in this industry. But working late at the office every single night is exploitation, and ultimately unnecessary. I’m quite confident I can continue to be sucessful in this industry without being exploited in this way.

      • I agree with mazyjane, I am a man (well more like a boy in a man’s body). I work the hours I am employed to work, if the need arises and ONLY IF, will I stay back or coming in on a w/e; and only if I am expected to have this time back at some later stage.

        I am a pretty highly paid freelancer, because I care about what I do and I also continually develop my skills so I can do the best job quicker and more efficiently than the average.

        Personally I feel if you have to stay back continually, it’s generally because your a brown nose, your to slow/ dim to get the work done in the prescribed amount of time or you don’t know how to stand up for yourself.

        In any case it’s got nothing to do with male/ female, it’s got to do with having (and wanting to have) a life outside of work.

  8. Leisa – I totally agree with your three points of respect and cynically feel that Milo has been deliberately controversial to provoke reaction and garner traffic to his blog…..perhaps that’s also why he links to Paul and not yourself.

    Either way his response is arrogant and condescending. If you want to read another well written riposte to Milo’s view then check out my colleague Rebecca Thomson’s blog post.

  9. Excellent post; I completely agree with #1 (encourage), #2 (recognition and visibility), and #3 (role models). Also Loquacity mentioned mentoring, and I would elevate that to #4; it’s vitally important to realize that encouragement often isn’t enough.

    I also think there are a lot of women who ARE women in tech, but who define themselves as marketing people, or managers, or PR people or designers, or researchers who just happen to only ever work in the tech sector. I’m not sure if there is something we need to *do* about this, although I’m starting a personal (informal) research project to better understand why these women exclude themselves from the ‘women in tech’ label. Perhaps it’s the information architect in me, but I have a feeling that a lot of this is taxonomy / labeling related.

    First of all I’d say the exclusion often comes from others, who have a very narrow definition of “tech” that rules out a lot of people. It’s a vicious circle: why identify with a label that’s applied in such an elitist way? There are probably other factors as well So I think it’s a great idea to explore this more, and work towards a more inclusive definition.

    jon

  10. I saw Marie Wilson speak a few years ago about a similar issue, except instead of tech it was politics. How could we get more women involved in the day to day work of running for and serving in public office because, just by having more women involved in the process, you end up with more informed choices, better discussions, and (hopefully) better decisions.

    I was reminded of Ms. Wilson’s talk when you mentioned in your first point about asking women in tech to step up, get involved, and do more. She mentioned that while many women wouldn’t think of running for office, if asked by someone else to do it, many times that woman would reconsider and often would run. So, I don’t know why we need to be asked, but apparently we do.

    - Jennifer

    (more info about Marie Wilson’s work is available at thewhitehouseproject.org)

  11. Hi Leisa,

    I agree with your point about women who are in the tech industry but don’t identify themselves that way. I see myself as an IA but feel that I can’t call myself a ‘tech’ or ‘geek’ as I don’t code.

    I was interested in the comments about being able to put in the long hours to be successful, the kind of ‘lunch is for wimps’ attitude that I thought we’d left behind. But unfortunately I meet many male geeks who proudly tell me about being up all night coding and working 70 hour weeks.

    Melanie

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