Sit down, shut up and pass it on

Just read Jemima Kiss’s piece in The Guardian about the women at Founders Forum huddling together in the bathroom, talking about the under-representation of women in the upper echelons of UK tech.

Of course it was in the bathroom. It’s where we women go to do all the things we supposedly don’t do: defecate, scramble for a tampon, cover our zits, cover our wrinkles, check if our outfits are too slutty or too frumpy, pull out grey hairs, cry. And talk to other women, in private. Where “private” means “without men listening”.

I read pieces like Jemima’s about institutional sexism. And then I see tweets from the good men of UK tech. Tweets like so many times before. “Something must be done,” the nicer ones say. “It has been done before/elsewhere/at other conferences/in other industries/in another time.” “Maybe we can get you, talented women-people, on a panel and say inspiring things about the future and about children and daughters and the youth.”

They’re inspired by strong women, these men. Many are kind. I like many of them as people, as professionals. I respect them, in many ways.

I guess that should be enough for me. Maybe I should be grateful that they care enough to respond and to think about it. But that’s not what I want.

What I want to happen isn’t complicated, but it’s hard.

You know what you can do, if you really want to help gender diversity in tech, as a middleclasswhiteman?

Next time you’re asked for your opinion.

Next time you’re asked to give a talk.

Next time some really meaty project requiring strategic, big picture, creative thinking comes along.

Next time that happens — and it will happen to you, if you’re a man of moderate to above-moderate talents — you say “No”.

And then you pass it on to a woman.

She might not be good. She may very well screw up. Be shrill. Boring. Not all women are clever. Not all women are gifted speakers. Not all women deserve those chances.

But neither did you.

If she is not good, ask her again. You were allowed to fail, and you’ve been socialised to believe that your opinion matters. That taking up space — verbally, physically — is your right. From how you sit on trains to how your voice carries, unapologetically, in meetings. She has been taught to be as small as possible. In body. In voice. In ideas.

It’s hard helping people so different from you to succeed in a space made for, and by, people like you. But you love solving hard problems. That’s why you went into tech, right?

So you keep at it.

You ask her. (Politely. Respectfully.)

You ask her again.

You ask other women.

You encourage them if they think they can’t do it or have nothing to say.

You branch beyond speaking engagements and start setting yourself targets, like not publishing a blog post until you’ve encouraged two women to blog about something. (If you can’t think of two women in tech who have something to say, it’s time for some soul searching.)

You give them tips on how to present at conferences. On what they could have done better. On how you bounce back from failure.

But mainly, you sit down and you shut up and you pass the chances that fall into your lap to women.

Sacrifice your own privilege, your industry profile, the inflated salary you draw from the alchemy of skills, personality and the assumption of competence that’s part of your birthright. Your birthright — not mine.

Do this because it’s the right thing to do. Be brave enough to disrupt your own industry, your own culture. Put your money where your tweets are.

When you’ve done this, when I’ve seen you do it, repeatedly, for years, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what can be done to advance the standing of women in tech. Until then, I’ll be plotting real disruption with my fellow women. Probably in the bathroom.