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So today is Ada Lovelace Day a day that brings women in technology to the forefront. For a while, this post has been brewing at the back of my head but considering this is a day celebrating women in tech, my celebrating it is understood, but I want to bring up some core issues with women in tech in the first place.
SXSWi is a great place to meet people and it was interesting that I had two distinct conversations about the same topic with Samantha Warren and Ariel Newland — where are the women in design. Now, we’ve been asking that question for years. In fact, SXSW has several panels about women in tech, on the web, recruiting women, understanding women, every single year and I find, every single year we’re not really much closer to any answers. At best, solutions include mentoring and starting at an early age; at worst, conversations devolve into men-bashing and stereotypes.
Very recently, Ryan Carson drew some ire at FOWA because of the lack of female speakers or attendees; like almost every event organizer who gets flack for this, he sends out a well meaning tweet for suggestions of female speakers and to have them tag it with #fowaspeak Some people took that at face value and simply recommended a few interesting people, others took offense thinking that he was simply asking for speakers for the sake of their gender. To fill a quota. At a recent local TED.com-like event, IDEAfest here in Edmonton, people were asked to volunteer to speak. First come, first served. This call-to-action occurred several weeks before the event. After the event occurred, some attendees were annoyed/flabbergasted at the lack of women or ethnic people presenting, with a thinly veiled accusation towards the organizers. At a volunteer event.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
A few things:
- Prejudice and sexism (both ways) exist
- The above will never be eradicated
- Education is key, but is not enough
In many ways I think we’re running around chasing our own tail, and maybe that’s because we’ve been asking the wrong questions, and are too busy playing the blame game. Let’s stop asking Where are the women in tech? or “Where are the women in this conference?”
Instead, let’s ask:
WHY do SOME women find it “easier” and necessary to get out there and be active in the community?
Just like with creating a user experience, personas are a powerful way to figure out what’s out there. There are a lot of talented web women out there, but there are some people whose names just jump out at you. Whitney Hess, Stephanie Sullivan, and Jina Bolton are often called upon to speak at various conferences and have a ton of followers on social media. Perhaps instead of asking where are the women, we should ask the women who are visible their personal and professional opinions on how they get active and visible. Take personality profiles of these women, their histories, their backgrounds. What’s common? What’s different? Whitney speaks about how shy she normally is: how does she break free? Why are some women afraid of being “out there”?
Or is it simply that Women just don’t pimp their shit?
Why are SOME women more comfortable or even blasee around men? (a reality in the tech industry)
Some girls just play well with boys. But we’re not all tomboys nor want to be. This is a reality of the world. There is a majority of men in the tech industry; some are not as friendly to women as they should be. How can we make interactions between men and women in the workplace, in a web workplace, more congenial? Men are not the enemy: they have mothers, daughters, and sisters. Most decent men want the best for the women in their lives. How do we work together with those men to more naturally include women?
How can we encourage women to STAY in technology?
I have the fortunate pleasure of being friends with some brilliant women out there. In fact, many of these women have gone through, since birth, many exposures to science and technology. A set of friends of mine has a scientist for a father; one of them has an undergrad degree in computing science, the other in electrical engineering. Both very sharp, ambitious women… they went through the WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology) program, the typical encouraging and mentoring program that’s meant to entice women to technology. And yet, one completely abandoned computer science for international law, and the other sets up some technological infrastructure in Ghana — and mostly because she wanted to work in the non-profit sector, not necessarily related to her degree. Is it all because of personal preference? How do we keep brilliant and ambitious female minds in the technology sector?
Some women, like Alison Lewis, (who is an electrical engineer) are trying to lure women to technology through fashion and craft. This actually hits on another issue of mine: some women feel the need to de-feminize themselves in order to “fit in.” I like how Alison’s charge is to completely subvert that — be beautiful and fashionable! — while integrating technology into it. Nothing being shameful about being feminine in a male-dominated industry.
I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that we need to ask different questions. Let’s stop treating the symptoms — randomly trying to find women to speak in conferences, etc — and address real problems.