How to be an ally to women in tech
You are no good. You do not belong. Get out.
I’m going to talk about the problem space before diving into solutions.
I’m going to use my own career as an example of what it’s like to be a woman in tech.
Let’s start with my first ever experience in engineering.
When I was 16, I was selected to work on an autonomous robot project with an EE grad student at Stanford. I was super excited.
After a few meetings, it was clear that he was not super excited to have someone like me working on his project. He started standing me up for our meetings. I’d often wait outside the engineering library for an hour and he wouldn’t show up.
At the time, I thought maybe he’d just lost interest in the project.
But of course, it turned out that he just had no interest in me.
At the end of the program, he sat me down and said many things to me. But most importantly, he told me:
- you don’t have the disposition to be an engineer
- engineering programs are really hard to get into
- you should pursue a different career path
Remember, this was my first ever experience in engineering. This dude told me I was no good without even giving me a chance.
And this has been a pattern throughout my career. This has been said to me hundreds of times throughout my 10 years in this community.
And this is the story of every single woman in engineering.
The only reason why there are so few women in tech is because there are so few humans who would persist after being told hundreds of times:
- you are no good
- you do not belong
- get out
I’ve got an analogy for you.
The career of a woman engineer is like whack-a-mole. The woman is the mole, and the engineering ecosystem is the gamer with the hammer.
We get our courage up to speak up, to poke our heads up. But we are always eventually beaten back down again.
And there is no winning as the mole, there is no beating the gamer. We can get better at dodging the hammer, but we are stuck playing until the game is over, until we leave the engineering community.
Bring your “whole self”
I want to talk a little bit about this thing that companies and organizations have been saying a lot lately, “bring your ‘whole self’ to work”. The idea is that if you are not bringing your whole self to work, part of your energy is being spent filtering yourself, and keeping part hidden.
It is naive and shitty for organizations to even ask this of minorities in the present climate.
So, I’ve got another analogy for you. It’s not the best analogy, but it’s the best I can come up with to explain this.
Imagine there is a dog and a food bowl. The dog needs to eat, obviously. The dog needs food to survive.
Imagine now, the dog is beaten 1/3 of the time it goes for food. What is going to start happening when it gets hungry?
Panic. Anxiety. Caution. Fear.
Everyone needs to voice their opinions, everyone needs to ask questions, everyone needs to be their whole selves at work in order to thrive.
But women are trained over years and years of hearing:
- you are no good
- you do not belong
- get out
that there is a fair chance that raising our hand, that speaking our mind, that asking questions, that being ourselves will result in a beating.
And I want you to hold onto this. I want you to remember this.
Next time you see a woman at the table, you need to understand that it is an accomplishment just that she showed up.
What’s up with women-only spaces?
Why women-only events?
- The most important function for women-only tech spaces is that they are safe. They are a safe place to:
- ask questions
- speak your mind, to be yourself in a technical environment
- talk about harassment and recent psychological beatings. It is so critical that women have a place to talk about this. Otherwise, it just sits in our heads and eats up all our energy.
2. Women-only spaces act as funnels.
In a safer place to try, to fail and to be ourselves up, we gain confidence. We start to feel more confident participating in the larger tech community, whether that’s participating in OSS, speaking up in meetings, etc.
3. Women-only spaces act as a home-base.
Let’s go back to whack-a-mole for a second. When you are whacked, you can come back to women-only spaces to:
- talk about it
- get support
- purge what happened
- do whatever we need to do
in a safe environment, and then return to the larger tech community.
Women of Color
I want to give a shout-out to women of color.
I am white, so I don’t have any real experience in what women of color go through.
But I have another story for you:
I was listening in on the debrief of a diversity event. The event was one in which people could get up and talk about problems they’re having in the community related to diversity. The debriefers were talking about a pattern they observed:
- when white women would get up to the mic and talk about problems they were having, black women tended to nod, +1, I agree
- when black women would get up to the mic to talk about problems they were having, white women tended to scoff, say they didn’t see any problem.
The question the debriefers asked as a result was, “how can we make the white women feel better at events like this in the future?”.
This literally blew my mind. And I apologize for not thinking about it sooner.
So I started talking to people about what it is like to be a woman of color in tech. There seems to be at least one general pattern, anecdotally of course:
When women of color go to tech events for people of color, they are ostracized because of their gender.
When women of color go to women-only events, they are ostracized because of their race.
Where is the safe space for women of color?
What can you do to help?
Ok I’m almost done.
I’ve got a story for you about one thing that a male coworker did for me recently that has helped me a lot — even now, months afterward. It is a great lesson for how all our allies can better help.
If we go back to whack-a-mole again for a second:
You now understand that this is true of every woman you work with. Every woman you work with is there, at the table, despite being told hundreds of times:
- you are no good
- you do not belong
- get out.
Another thing you need to understand before I tell this story:
After being beaten down so many hundreds of times, I cannot tell the difference between a sexist comment made:
- with mal intent
- due to subconscious bias
- or because the person just misspoke
There is no difference in how it affects me. At this point, it is just one long drone of you are no good.
So when I refer to sexism in this story, it could be any of these. And it does not matter.
I was running a meeting at work of around 30 people.
- was my idea
- I organized it
- I wanted to brainstorm in prep for another important meeting that I was also organizing
- I had done all the preparation work
- I was most qualified to run
Halfway through my meeting, one of my more powerful male colleagues made a comment. He asked the room at large who we could get to run my meeting (the one we are planning for) who would, “command the room”. He suggested a man, and a man with much less experience than I have in this particular topic.
And this situation is not at all out of the ordinary, of course.
So usually what happens, in terms of what my peers do, is the subtle sexism is glossed over. People just pretend it didn’t happen, and we move on with the meeting.
But what this says to everyone in the room, including me, is that this behavior is tolerated, it is OK, it is maybe even valid.
Sometimes one of my peers will stand up for me. They will say something about me personally, like, I think she is good enough.
This is way better than no support, let me tell you.
But this time, something happened to me that has never happened in all my 10 years of being beaten down by powerful men in this industry. One of my male coworkers said to this dude outright, in the moment, in front of all 30 of my colleagues,
“it sounds like you are saying that because she is not a man”
Wow. Drop the mic.
He called out the sexism explicitly.
In doing this, he:
- helped pave the way in the moment for others to +1
- gave me more courage to continue leading the discussion
But something else happened that I would never have expected.
When you stand up to sexism with a personal defense, saying things like, “I think Sarah is good enough”, you are not addressing the problem. You are addressing a byproduct of the problem.
And in doing so, you even acknowledge that the sexist comment could have actually been made because of a personality trait of mine, that there is something I can do to improve to prevent this in the future.
Sexism is not personal.
My co-worker calling this out explicitly, and in public had a lasting impact on me at work.
I carry this one instance with me every day, this public acknowledgement by my male colleague that there really is sexism at my job, that my co-worker sees it too.
Holding onto this knowledge has given me the ability to negate other sexist things that have happened since. On my own.
And this, in turn, has freed up a part of my brain which was previously dedicated to internalizing crap and filtering myself to better fit in with men.
The moral of this story is,
If you see something, say something
Talk about sexism explicitly.
Be courageous. I get it, it’s scary to stand up for these things. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, you don’t want to offend.
But we have to try.
We will never get better at standing up for each other, we will never learn to overcome these fears if we do not try.
Be alert, stay angry.
Don’t let anything slide.