One man’s reflections on GHC 2015

I had the great fortune of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this year. For a play-by-play of which amazing sessions I attended, you can check out my twitter stream on the topic. Meanwhile, here is a collection of various thoughts I had about attending.

In defense of GHC

There are a lot of leaders in tech diversity that I truly respect who see GHC & ABI as a stronghold of white, corporate feminism that companies support just for advertising sake. Many argue that smaller, more grass roots efforts like Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and AlterConf are a better investment. Heading into GHC, I was reading a lot of this, and honestly I was becoming more and more skeptical of the conference.

But now that I have actually attended, my perspective has changed.

First of all, I totally agree that yes, those other events and organizations need and deserve much more funding and support! And yes, GHC might be over-funded. It is really troubling to watch how hard Ashe Dryden and her team have to work to get AlterConf funded each month, and at the same time observe big tech companies spending so much on GHC. Beyond that, it has to be problematic to focus so much diversity-in-tech funding in one place — the industry must diversify our diversity investment!

However, while AlterConf provides incredible diversity education and a great platform for marginalized people in tech, GHC provides some different benefits. Along with sessions on diversity & organizational change, GHC is an enormous and serious technical conference with loads of amazing tech talks and workshops, and provides a safer space than other big tech conferences. And although many small organizations provide great tech training and networking, a lot people find the mega-conference format to be an effective way to learn and to build their professional network. Hundreds of thousands of career connections were made at GHC that will further these women’s careers. And many other awesome organizations and initiatives actually got great exposure at GHC — for example, Girls Who Code announced it’s new HireMe initiative from the main stage.

Additionally, the event was far more intersectional and diverse than I expected. There was visible representation of people of color and LGBT in attendance and as speakers as well, including in plenary and keynote sessions. I was honored to be invited to the Women of Color lunch by a friend of mine; the conversation at our table was profound and gave me a more personal understanding of many issues I’ve only read about.

For large companies and universities, investing money and attendance in a format like GHC seems relatively low risk and high impact. Every session I attended taught me something I didn’t know. So many amazing women spoke who have done important and inspirational work.

Still, I really do admire the people who are skeptical of GHC and I respect their point of view. There was a gathering of some of them in San Fransisco called “!GHC”, and they shared some great thoughts on Twitter. We need more corporate support for events like this and for the community leaders who are deepening the diversity discussion in our industry.

On being a man at women’s conference

First of all, it was really funny to see awkwardness around the men’s rooms being converted to gender neutral restrooms, and how different people respond to that. The surprise of it never seemed to wear off for some attendees. Also, please note: If you are a man using a gender neutral restroom it seems pretty obvious that you should wait in line for a stall like everyone else — yet I saw many men skip the line and go straight for the urinals, which seemed both unfair and uncomfortable. In the future ABI could make this easier to understand by taping off the urinals.

As a person who has nearly every privileged, overrepresented attribute (white, straight, male, typically abled, US born, securely middle class, etc), it was a supremely educational experience for me to be in a situation where I was a minority (maybe 5% men at GHC?). For the first day or so it felt continually surprising. But then, as I met more and more brilliant women in technology and shared experiences with women colleagues that I already knew, the gender difference issue just kind of melted into the background. I was surrounded by peers in my field who cared about a similar set of issues as me. Instead of a feeling of exclusion, I felt community.

The women at GHC succeeded in making the male minority feel welcome and included. If only our industry as a whole could consistently provide that level of inclusion to women.

On Sheryl Sandberg

First of all, I am really grateful to Sandberg for her efforts. She has done some very important work for women in technology. Although, too many men read Lean In and go on to mansplain to women how to change their behaviors, rather than figuring out how to improve tech culture so these women don’t have to change, but I digress… All in all, I believe she is a net positive for the cause. Regardless, she doesn’t need my approval anyway.

However, during her plenary interview session Thursday, she said a few things that worry me (paraphrased here):

  • Women should date men who attend these events.
  • A young guy at Facebook attended a women-in-tech event and came back bragging about the 200 women who asked him for dates.
  • Men who do the laundry “get more” from their partners.

While these were intended as laugh lines, it was obvious she sees these points as more than just a joke. To hear this yourself, go here and play “Afternoon Plenary” and track to about 31:45 minutes in, stay with it through 35:30. Sandberg and have said and written similar things before.

As far as I’m concerned, this is just gross. This is not the right way to get men involved. Men should not be expecting any kind of sexual return on an investment in supporting women. Women shouldn’t be pressured to reward men this way for doing the right thing. I concede that maybe these guys are a better pick on average than the alternative, but still — framing it in this way is problematic. I was so distracted and upset about this that I accidentally spent the remainder of that evening blogging a rebuttal in my head… I regret getting so distracted about it though. It was not productive.

We should expect men to be allies to women because it is the right thing to do. If men need other motivation, then the business benefits of gender diversity are well studied and proven. In fact, that motivation is very important to ensure diversification efforts will continue… Also, these motivations (it’s right; it’s profitable) are the only motivations that can work across the spectrum of diversity.

Anyway, guys: do the laundry because it’s dirty.

Life is ironic

My younger daughter’s 13th birthday was October 15th (day two of GHC). Before agreeing to go to GHC I asked my daughter and my wife if it was ok and they were totally fine with it. We were thinking of having her birthday party the weekend before GHC, so it should have been no problem…

But then, a few weeks ago my mother-in-law landed in the hospital after a heart attack. So my wife was busy being at the hospital with her. We scheduled the birthday party for the Saturday after GHC. Also, we had to get the house ready for my in-laws to come stay with us for a few weeks, so they could be near major hospitals and could get the support needed during recovery.

Oh yeah — and our dog suddenly had fleas the weekend before GHC. I vacuumed the entire house and did the first round of flea treatment. But the darn things are insidious…

As each issue piled on, I told my wife I could just drop out of GHC… But she kept encouraging me to go and assured me she could manage it all. So there I was in Houston, attending a women’s conference trying to be a male ally, meanwhile trying to offer moral support to my wife over the phone while she handled pretty much everything (everyday kid logistics, birthday party prep, convalescent home prep, flea fighting, plus her already overloaded schedule of being a 5th grade teacher, which is a 60+ hour a week job on a good week). This made me feel like such a hypocritical jerk.

At least I can say that when I got home after GHC I worked nonstop on those issues all weekend. The birthday party went really well. Happily my mother in law is recovering quickly (she’s tough!) and enjoying sharing a slice of life with us. My wife never made me feel bad for going to GHC and appreciated hearing all about the experience.

Still, in retrospect, I probably should have stayed home…

Some learnings

I focussed on the organizational change track of GHC sessions. Despite having been studying these issues for a while now, I really learned a lot.

In multiple sessions I heard that promoting superstar women as role models may actually alienate women interested in tech, and generate more impostor syndrome. It is more useful to have role models and support at the local, relatable level. This calls into question the idea of having such superstars on the main stage plenary and keynotes, or naming conferences after them. I am not sure what to make of this, but it could be important.

Next, in multiple sessions it was driven home that unconscious bias is very real and is largely to blame for the skewed representation in tech. Problematic biases are a bit like fleas in that they are really difficult to get rid of, they reproduce quickly, reinfection from the environment can occur, and fighting them requires everyone’s effort. It is hard to overstate the compound impact of little tiny biases and related flawed processes penalizing marginalized people at every step.

I learned that we can only fight bad biases by employing repeatable mechanisms and processes — ideally processes that are biased in the opposite direction of our “natural” biases. We must fix and counteract problems at every single step of the way in technical careers. Everything from anonymized resume reviews, to less biased promotion processes, to seriously enforced anti-harassment policies and much more needs to be rolled out industry wide.

Finally, there was a lot of data showing that despite the industry’s interest in diversity over the last few years, the representation numbers have not changed very much. A lot more needs to be done, because progress is far too slow right now. We all need to do our share of this dirty laundry.

There is huge energy and investment happening around tech inclusion and diversity — we just need to channel it better. We need more men to get more involved and do their part at home and at work to make the world a more equitable place for women, and to do so for the right reasons. We need to support the people who are fighting this in innovative ways on a grass roots level. We need to find and fix as many broken processes as possible. We need to work continuously to remove unconscious bias from our decision making. It all starts by learning as much as we can and taking responsibility for our behaviors.

Opinions expressed are my own