I was at a conference last week, Devops Days Pittsburgh, that had lots of Openspace (aka unconference) time built in, and one of the sessions I attended was on diversity in tech, or shall I say, the lack thereof. It’s a tough topic, the problem is so vast and multi-faceted that it’s hard to even know where to start, so I’m afraid I cannot report any major breakthroughs or deep insight. I will share some observations, opinions and emotions though – sorry, it is an emotional topic.
Where we decided to start was by going around the room and having each person introduce themselves and say a bit about why they chose this session. Some people, men and women, reported personal interest, others, aspirations to improve the situation at their workplaces, and some brought a concern on behalf of a loved one, usually wife or daughter. Though we acknowledged that there are many underrepresented groups in technology fields, we spent most of the time talking about gender. The discussion was quite active, jumping around a whole lot, but there are three things that are really sticking with me.
First, during our round of intros one gentleman said he was there because he was looking for help on how to have the conversation without sounding bad. This resonated with several others in the group and many agreed this was a laudable goal. But then another gentleman spoke up, expressing his dismay that there was such interest in (paraphrasing) “white men wanting have people help them not sound like bigots.” OMG. Okay, I love you. I learned a little bit about microaggressions from an extraordinary woman I recently met (Jane, lunch some time soon? I promise to eat this time ) – and have a look at this link, it’s really interesting. I’m dense – most of the time I don’t see them until they are pointed out, just as in this case; I didn’t see the microagression until it was pointed out. Women, and other under represented individuals, are the ones with the problems that need solving, not the white guy. Let me emphatically point out that the guys who were looking for this help are good people, I don’t slight them personally at all. We all have biases that have been ingrained into us from a very young age and, in a way, I see their question as a way of expressing that they want to eliminate them. Maybe that’s the lesson here – that we should all work to get a handle on our biases so we can then work at them.
The second moment came when a woman in the group spoke up, said that she had never experienced any discrimination and that women had only themselves to blame for being underrepresented in technology fields. Are you freakin kidding me?! May I present computer engineer Barbie and Bad Ass Programmers? I have another link for you, lady, read this article on ambient belonging. It’s real. It discourages not only adult women from going into tech, but even more alarmingly, filters out girls so that by the time they get to high school they couldn’t be more adverse to going into these male dominated fields. Point is, the fields are male dominated even at the primary school level and there are very real reasons for that. It’s not the girl’s fault! Argh!
And then, at some point we talked about maternity leave policies in the US, and, of course, it was pointed out how anemic they are here, relative to other countries. [Hmm, all of a sudden I want to see statistics on representation of women in tech in different countries. If you’ve got some links, please comment.] This then lead to a conversation about how difficult it is for a mom to take some years off for family, and return to the work force. One man told us that, in fact, he discouraged his daughter from going into computing for exactly that reason. NO WAY! I was, and am, devastated by this! I cannot believe that even well meaning, technology savvy parents are doing their daughters such a monumental disservice. I personally [and this is a very personal subject for me] cannot imagine having found a career that I love more than the one I have, and if I had gone into something else, just to plan for an eventuality that might or might not pose a challenge… well, “catastrophe” is the only word I can think of.
This really hurt me in a deep way. I spent a good bit of the weekend thinking about it. The challenge is real, no question; in certain, significant swaths of the computing industry, the technology changes so rapidly, and so significantly that taking a few years off can leave someone very far behind. Take time off for the kids to be fully grown, and whoa. When my son, who is just finishing his first year in college, was born, very few people even had cell phones. So how could someone who had taken a young lifetime off possibly have the skills needed to build mobile apps? But this problem IS SOLVEABLE. First, there are ample opportunities to stay relatively current in your skills. There’s Coursera and many other online learning sites, and programs that can help jumpstart (or restart) people, particularly those with background and drive. Never before have I seen so many easily accessible communities – women who code, black girls code, Data Driven Women and lots of other groups focused on just about any technology. I’m not saying a mom (or dad) needs to work full time on this while raising kids, but there are lots of opportunities to make things work. What we’re talking about here is not a “job,” it’s a career and needs some care and feeding.
And when I was talking to my husband about it, we also realized that there are some technology industries that don’t change as rapidly as others. He works in aerospace, for example, and feels that someone could take years off and reenter that space with little difficulty.
So there are some pragmatic things a woman can do that would allow her to be a mom AND have a rewarding career. Please, for god’s sake, do NOT discourage young women from going into tech because they might become pregnant some day! Talk about micro, no, macroaggressions.