#GHC16, Avoiding Gatekeeping and Expanding Opportunities for Women in Tech

After years of following along on Twitter, not to mention 20 years simply existing as a woman in tech, I finally made it to my first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston (#GHC16 for you Twitter nerds) this year. And on the whole, it was a fabulous event — great keynote speakers, especially Dr. Latanya Sweeney of Harvard and Ginni Rometty of IBM, and so many opportunities to share experiences with other women in the field. It seemed that the vast majority of the attendees were computer science students looking for internships (and more power to them); they were poised, well-prepared and passionate about what we do — I wish I had been that clear about career paths when I was in my early 20s, and I was thrilled to chat with them — it was a splendid chance to offer advice and, of course, try to recruit them. Hiring is a lot harder now than it was in the 1990s, though more on that in a moment.

But I did notice a creeping undercurrent about who ‘counts’ as a woman in tech — not, I hasten to add, coming from any of the sessions I attended, merely snatches of conversation I overheard while walking the conference floor or lining up to get into a heavily-oversubscribed talk or two. ‘She’s just the recruiter’ or ‘I think she’s in marketing, not a software engineer’ or even ‘she’s not a CS major, she’s just looking to find a job with a good salary.’ And I admit that earlier in my career, I also had similar divisions in my mind — the women (and we only ever remarked upon the women, never the men — unconscious bias is a bitch) in marketing didn’t ‘get’ what ‘we’ the developers did, they were a different breed. Never mind that back then, few of ‘us’ had actually studied computer science; we had fallen into the profession through various routes — perhaps coding on the side as a hobby, or taking an interesting tech elective, or even been ‘drafted’ into a long-open role by having the ability to fog a mirror. But we worked with code. We were techies. Different. Special. Highly in demand.

But having racked up a lot more work and life experience then, I realize now that it’s just as easy to be the person on the other side of the ‘othering.’ A decade-plus into my career, when a CS degree was becoming the more standard route into tech (and the number of women I worked with dropped off quickly around that point), not having one suddenly became a bit suspect. Was I still a ‘real’ techie when I became ever-further-removed from hands-on coding? Sometimes my matrixed reports didn’t think so — and were on occasion surprised to know that I understood what they were talking about and could call them out on sloppy development work. Were my project managers still techies? Maybe. What about tech writers, editors and designers? Sometimes — especially if they were men.

The current mania for ‘STEM education’ at the expense of the arts and humanities, especially at the undergraduate level, makes the tech/non-tech division seem natural and ‘correct’ — when, in fact, you cannot build good tech products and programs without a diverse mix of skills and backgrounds. Yes, we need more women (and people of many other underrepresented backgrounds) in technology, but we cannot let an undergrad CS degree and a great internship become the only path in, nor should we let people become so focused on writing great code that they cannot develop in other ways. I want to meet great engineers who can also write well, give a kick-ass presentation and become go-to mentors for others — and those so-called ‘soft skills’ are just as vital, and need nurturing from the start. Outside interests are just as important; you can be passionate about what you do without it being the only thing you do.

I digress to make the point that we’re all in this together; whether you are a woman working in HR at a tech company or a female software engineer just getting started at a non-profit, you’re both women in tech. Even if your current team has an ideal gender balance (and I’ve been on quite a few), it’s unlikely you’ll always be that lucky in your future career; being able to advocate for each other, instead of only those who are Just Like Us (and Just Like Us doesn’t have to be based on gender or background — when we define ourselves by our roles at work, either in whole or in part, it’s relevant) is hugely important. There are no Fake Tech Women any more than there are Fake Geek Girls. Women who want to transition into a tech career from another field, perhaps with decades of non-technical experience under their belts, should not feel unwelcome. Given how incredibly difficult it is to hire people with the right skills, we need to stop gatekeeping, even when it’s unintentional, and help build other solid paths in. Coding boot camps, especially those with industry support that include internships for so-called non-traditional candidates, are a good start, but coding is just one important element of a successful tech career. Code should not be the sole defining feature of what a tech career looks like, any more than being a white dude under 30 is what a tech worker ‘looks like.’ We need to focus on our commonalities and drive positive change; creating artificial barriers is no help to anyone, not even the bottom line.

And that leads me to my next topic — where are the senior women in tech? The metrics presented at #GHC16 showed an uptick in early career tech women, but still what looks like a sheer cliff in mid-career and senior executive positions. The guidance offered was that formal leadership development programs are the key, and it certainly sounds like a useful path forward; I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in some useful coaching programs in previous roles, but they tended to focus on developing capabilities for individual projects or programs, rather than looking at how to move to the next level — that just ‘happened’ along the way. And I am very much aware of the fact that most of the other women I worked with in my early career are gone — they’ve left the field entirely.

But I took great inspiration from walking the #GHC16 conference floor and watching companies work hard to impress potential interns, entry-level and early career folk — imagine if we had the same opportunities as Old People to be, as Lerner and Loewe once wrote, ‘worshiped and competed for’ at conferences that focused on sharing roles at those levels. Yes, we get random calls from recruiters, but it’s not the same as having the opportunity to see a fuller picture of what’s out there and what we might work toward, nor does that offer the same chance to do in-person networking and story-telling. Luckily, there were some of ‘us’ there, and while we may not have been explicitly catered to by the hiring companies — not really an issue since most of us were there to hire for our own teams — it was nice to have some representation. Your tech career doesn’t have to end when you switch careers at 35 or take some time out to travel or have a family, and it’s important to see people who are visible reminders of that, just as it’s important to see real-life examples of women of color in tech, transwomen in tech, disabled women in tech and so forth.

I’ve written before about how the media tends to portray ‘successful’ women in tech as those who made the C-suite before 40 (or 30, or 25, or hey, why not 12?), or as young company founders blazing new trails. But a mature field allows for a wide variety of career paths, and incremental success is just as valid as headline-friendly overnight success. Sure, I’d like to have retired wealthy by 40 and had the opportunity to become a world-traveling philanthropist, funding rare book libraries and specialist archives all along the way, but I do really love my current position — I’m still moving onward and upward in my career (which affords me a ludicrous level of freedom and privilege compared to most), and I have the opportunity to mentor others. Whether that means we need to have more conferences aimed specifically at mid- and senior-career women in tech I do not know, but I do know that representation matters, and there was a lot of it at #GHC16. Hopefully there is more to come.

My other takeaway was that people will stand in line for a very long time for a freshly screen-printed t-shirt, but I have yet to wrap my head around that one — though that said, it created an ideal bottleneck for career conversations, so all in all, a win. :)

Now, if I can just find (or kick off) one of those formal leadership development programs, I’ll be set for my next act

This post also appears on LisaGrimm.com.