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And yet another post on women in tech

The recent “Women in Tech” (disaster) panel at Techcrunch reminded me of a long overdue post I’ve been wanting to write on the absence-of- women-in-tech debate that’s being doing the rounds over the last few months.

Part of it revolves around the far too common prevalence of all (white) male panels/speakers at top tech conferences…a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with (as the pinch-hitter diversity rescuer I seem to be morphing into)… and part of it is around low numbers female-founded start-ups & tech companies.

I’m happy to see that the conversation is moving away from “this is the sorry state of things” to “what practical things can we do.” Not so happy with the siloing of solutions: women-only conferences; women-only panels; etc.

My two cents on this debate:

– I think many of the top conferences do try to be more diverse, but those of us who would like to see better representation need to do our part by building referral lists; working on our public speaking skills and confidence; getting out there more. Those of you who follow me on twitter or FB know I travel quite a fair bit mostly as a conference speaker – it takes its toll; its hard to juggle the travel with family and work etc. – but I can’t tell you how many times I’ll say yes to a trip half-way around the world to make sure that there is a diversity of opinion; or in appreciation of a conference organizers attempt to reach out; or just in the hope that my visibility will encourage other women…we need more women doing this…even though the immediate return is unclear. When a conference organizer comes calling I should have a long list of women to recommend…

– We need to move away from the idea that women can only / can best be mentored by other women (not just in tech but other fields as well). Not just because of the numbers issue, but because its limiting. Anyone who has been successful and has knowledge to share is a potential mentor. 90% of my mentors have been male most of them with very little in common with me on a personal level – from life experience, work experience, backgrounds etc. – what they have had is an interest in seeing me succeed in what I do and that’s been enough. If I had sat around and waited for inspiration / mentorship from “someone I can relate to” no telling where I’d be. Besides, to the extent that we are still largely living in a man’s world…where better to get advice on how to navigate that world.

– Finally, I’m a fan of Clay Shirky’s rant about women. Something I can totally relate to. I remember when my undergrad adviser / mentor read my first draft of my law school application personal statement, he was like what the hell is this crap? I had totally undersold myself (and subsequently learned to get my writing on point). Then in law school, there was the phenomenon of most women turning in middle of the road performances because our exam answers were too “safe” (unless we figured out the rules of the game, which was the best way to get an A was not to know the law inside out, but to come up with as many bullshit ways apply it in a fact pattern and hopefully the professor is impressed by your ingenuity…guys apparently had no problem with that). Then in my professional life l find myself occasionally being talked down to in a way that wouldn’t happen with a guy…and then spending hours agonizing on how to respond without landing the you-know-its-coming “what a bitch!” response.

Clay Shirky writes:

Some of the most important opportunities we have are in two-sided markets: education and employment, contracts and loans, grants and prizes. And the institutions that offer these opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

That in turn correlates with many of the skills the candidate will need to actually do the work — to recruit colleagues and raise money, to motivate participants and convince skeptics, to persevere in the face of both obstacles and ridicule. Institutions assessing the fitness of candidates, in other words, often select self-promoters because self-promotion is tied to other characteristics needed for success.

It’s tempting to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.

He adds:

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.

A bit over-the-top? Perhaps. But you get the idea.

The average guy wakes up everyday, looks in the mirror, and thinks “I’m so awesome” previous fuck-ups notwithstanding (and has no problem reminding other people of said awesomeness by the way).

Getting a little bit of that attitude is what I’m working on…rather than thinking of all the things I need to fix when my day starts (which is what happens most of the time).


35 comments to And yet another post on women in tech

  • Vusi Vuma

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You do make a good case for women to be more assertive, I think there is a cultural dimension to it as well, in that most African cultures tend to “encourage” women to be “modest”. Totally agree on the point about mentorship, in tech you may battle to find female mentors with the requisite mastery (and time) to work with. Keep up the excellent work

  • Carol Gallo

    Right on. I’m lucky I don’t have too much trouble with this anymore. My father is a Professor in Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania and works with a number of women PhDs. He’s always telling them exactly that– “Stop selling yourself short, and stop apologizing for your work.”

    Nice piece.

  • Ory Okolloh

    @Vusi, agree on the cultural aspect re modestly…for that I thank my time in the US

  • Women are doing well in hitherto male arenas. They have as much capabilities as men and the resources necessary 4 accomplishing anything.
    Maybe their absence in tech events shouldn’t be something to worry about. I bet women dominate segments of the fashion industry and no one raises an eyebrow as to why men aren’t equally “represented”.
    I think this focus on women is going too far; so long as they’re adequately given access to all opportunities, their failure to maximise on them is whose fault?

  • Shiroh

    Women would rather sell themselves short or appear not so successful. The name given for women who have a mind of their own is Martha Karua. I can’t tell you of how many men will keep telling me that they fear me just for the simple reason that i am a lawyer. Go figure. Women should be soft if they want to land a man apparently. And there goes your primary reason. To get a man

  • wambui

    @ Kayhills women are still under represented in many male dominated arenas therefore until we have a fair playing field, then we have to talk about it. This is the reason why policies such as affirmative action in US are now in place to increase employment and educational opportunities to minorities. We still have a long way to go, and as women we need to be as assertive as the next man.

  • We can never have enough women in tech! Please come and save me from this male-orientated world! :(


    A kenyan girl working in the Dutch IT world..

  • Every single day, a woman in some part of the globe is denied the right to education or education of choice; the right to employment or employment of choice, the right to choice of life or LIFE ITSELF!

    This is despite the fact that women have made a profession noble by being Florence Nightingale, she brought a revolution by being Rosa Parks (refusing to give her seat to a white man, starting a black revolution that ultimately put Obama in the White House) & she changed an industry (by being Marie Curie, the only human to win two Nobel prizes in Physics & Chemistry).

    Honestly, how many us do really know our true worth? We are a $7 Trillion market in the US alone. So imagine what we would be world wide. [Just google me to find more about my work.] This article is written beautifully except that after knowing our true worth, we should expect men to literally kiss the ground we walk on.

    Here is a case in point of one organization that used IT to its success: I co-founded the Shahina Aftab Foudation (SAF) with my mother earlier this year as a global NGO for women development. The day we started, we were global. How? We went online, setup facebook page and started fund raising, awareness and promotion of women. In just two months of operation, we were covered by BBC in Aug 26, 2010 article “Pakistan floods, worst is yet to come.” This coverage led to more on Forbes, USA today, Martha Vineyard times amongst others. Using social media, internet, mobile SMS, conferences and presentations, we raised 5 Million for our beneficiaries. In the next three months, we plan to setup 3 primary schools and 3 health centers for which the funding is with us.

    We specialize in providing micro-loans and in one of projects I was heading, we provided 31 Million worth of credit to women in 713 villages, imparting skilled training to 6,000 of them, setting up 680 micro business units. Our loan recovery was 100%, a mile stone in itself but better still, we earned 10% ROI. Ofcourse we won the Citi PPAF award for Global Micro Entrepreneurship. And two others for innovation in micro enterprises. But the greatest impact that our program had was on children. We were able to pull out 6,000 of them from shackles of poverty & child labour and provided them informal education. Due to our work, we were invited by the micro finance global meeting of the giants to show case our work at the C5 Micro Investment Summit in Hong Kong held on 2-3 December, 2010. We became the only company in Pakistan to showcase our work in the history of C5.

    I believe that women are enough to support women. If men join in the party, great! If they miss out, the loss is theirs. If enough of us start sponsoring, investing in and helping women we can change the globe. Yes, I have this economic theory, for which I was called the “Ambassador for Women Development” at the C5 conference. It is called the Noor’s Formula. Invest in women= income for women = food for the family + school for children + health care for family. The children that develop from such a home will change our future. They would be educated and skilled. And if they do not get a job tomorrow, they would create one. When women have the economic incentive, they would delay marriage and kids. Which means fewer kids with more resources. It will transform the future we have, the way we shop, eat, live, breathe and study. It will end global poverty!

    The solution is simple and right in front of our eyes. Question is will we see the solution and invest in women or will we still bow to men?

  • Lovely! As a the great Hollywood actress put it, Power is not a thing you are given, it’s a thing you take.

  • Absolutely agree with you – I dislike this ‘siloing’ of females into ‘women only’ conferences or social network groups. I do think it’s an unnessary division.

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  • This is despite the fact that women have made a profession noble by being Florence Nightingale, she brought a revolution by being Rosa Parks (refusing to give her seat to a white man, starting a black revolution that ultimately put Obama in the White House) & she changed an industry (by being Marie Curie, the only human to win two Nobel prizes in Physics & Chemistry).

  • Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such fantastic info being shared freely out there.

  • Saying that women are systematically “discriminated” against in tech fields, is lying with no facts.

    “Feminism, as a movement, is made up of a lot of lawyers, sociologists, psychologists, political science majors and other humanities-related studies. Women’s studies professors are known for expressing all-out contempt for engineering, telling classes that engineering is just a lost cause, a hostile terrible place for women ,etc. This indeed has the undesired effect [on innocent kids] in that they begin thinking that technology isn’t for women because the men in such fields are “oppressing” them because she’s a woman.

    Think about all those women who have succeeded in all fields of human existence. Look at all the women inventors and innovators. Were they waiting for the government to mandate PC laws against this so-called “misogyny” in tech. fields? They didn’t. And that’s why we remember them.

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  • Women in tech are certifiably on the rise in Virginia. We just hired our first female CTO in 30 years.

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