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.
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).