what I’ve learned about “women in tech” this week

The past few days have reaffirmed my decision to stay in this weird cocoon of a world, even after saying, “this is my last tech job” more than a few times since moving back to the bay area. I published a post about “Women in Tech” for the very selfish reason of getting it off my chest to make myself feel better. It worked, and with a very unintended but amazing side benefit: people want to talk about it. Not about how I personally feel, either (thank god. how awkward would that be!). They all want to discuss actual issues and potential solutions. Incredibly unexpected and inspiring.

The main lesson I’ve learned is that I know less about this whole effort than I thought I did. But I’ve gained some valuable insight just by engaging in the discussion & am looking forward to more of the same. In a [very large] nutshell:

Men want to – and should – be involved

I’ve heard from men who didn’t know they were welcome at “womeng” events, who admitted their own guilt at letting others’ bad behavior go unchecked, and who wanted to get involved for a variety of reasons. What’s surprised me most is that the discussions I’ve had with those men have been, on the whole, more productive, more inspiring, and more actionable than those I’ve had with women in the past. It’s helped me connect with people and ideas that have re-shaped my own opinions. It’s also shown me that women aren’t the only people who are thinking about it.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with this women-in-tech issue being labeled as a “female thing”, but struggled to explain why. I suspect most people understand deep down that the behavioral issues I covered in my post affect the community at large, not just women. I’m by no means saying that gender bias doesn’t exist; there are plenty of studies that prove it does. But the interrupting, condescension, taking credit for others’ ideas, etc. affect men in our industry too. Some exclusionary discussions I hear fairly frequently:

  • Men’s behavior toward women needs to change. A few men have approached me to make sure I understand that they, too, are fed up with these same behaviors. Maybe it’s time to stop making this about women and start making this about getting rid of the assholes.
  • Women don’t flock to engineering/ops roles because they want to have families, and being oncall is really tough. Yikes. I work fairly closely with three new fathers, and ALL of them are offended by that type of blanket statement.
  • It’s up to women to drive this effort, because most men just aren’t interested in helping. My recent experience leads me to claim ‘hogwash’ on that.

We’ve unintentionally narrowed the audience by the way we talk about these challenges. Even topics outside of the behavioral issues – pay and career progression, for instance – could use more varying perspectives to generate new & novel ideas about how to combat them. Outside of the past few days, I haven’t heard much from my male counterparts, and even less from male managers.

The ‘company’ needs to play a larger role

Most tech companies live & die by hiring referrals. (this is a good short read of that in action at a company that surely can’t be evil) If a jerk starts the hiring effort and that train leaves the station filled with like-minded people, it’s nigh impossible to get them to disembark so the company can start the journey all over again. The companies I’ve worked in with the worst behavioral issues are those where hiring for technical acumen trumps culture fit almost every time. If an engineer (or manager) is technically strong, they’ll get an offer. It’s only the mediocre candidate who’s culled out of the pipeline if they have soft skills issues. In my current role, I haven’t come across a single jerk, and I attribute that to the importance we place on hiring people who play well with others. Another “todo”: figure out how Dropbox managed this & whether we can codify and share that much more widely than we do now. #competitiveadvantagebedamned

It’s up to managers and leaders across the company to ‘model the way’. I’ve yet to work in a place that makes in-depth diversity training for management compulsory. Amazon’s management training was great back in the day, and Twitter’s TC5 is a fabulous all-around program today. Taking it a step farther and creating meaningful content with brains-on participation would surely help managers both attract and lead more diverse teams, and in a more authentic way. A pass/fail mechanism with actual accountability wouldn’t hurt either. We’re so scared of holding people accountable that we don’t even use the word without apologizing. That’s sad and unfortunate.

The cool kids are the majority

The bulk of people I’ve worked with have treated me with the same level of respect that they have for the men around me. I lay awake last night thinking, perhaps this is just a “few bad apples” scenario and we’re making this more difficult than it needs to be. Maybe we already have critical mass, and it just needs to be directed better. Okay, it takes more than “just a few” people to create such a large-scale outpouring of consternation and gnashing of teeth. But when I think of all the amazing people – men and women – I’ve had discussions with this week, and the incredible people I’ve worked with in my career, this whole problem makes less sense. The assholes in our industry have got to be outnumbered, right? Why do we put up with it then? Is it the role & level that those jerks in the minority hold that makes this so difficult and pervasive? That there aren’t consequences to being a jerk to the people around them? I just don’t get it, and it seems like understanding that piece is one of the first steps toward fixing this ailment.

Other stuff I’ve learned

  • I’m a part of & represent a community, whether I participate in or cultivate it or not.
  • I don’t know much about “diversity” outside of women in technology.
  • Just participating in these discussions, let alone doing something about them, requires a lot of time, energy and dedication.
  • I don’t know what to call this Women in Tech “thing”, which makes it awkward to talk about at length (I’ve said the words effort, initiative and thing approximately a billion times this week).
  • Solid “why” and “how” data behind these issues is just too difficult to find, assuming that it even exists. But there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. This makes me sad, given the data-driven environment we all work in.
  • Companies really want people to believe they’re role models for the diversity effort and will go to great lengths to preserve that, regardless of whether it’s the truth.

I’m so fortunate to have been a part of the conversations I’ve had with people from different locales and industries this week. I’ve realized that it does indeed ‘take a village’ and that there are many more people in the world who are interested in making a difference. A huge weight is lifted once you realize you’re not alone/stupid/wrong.



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