An apology for being a wuss from a woman in tech

This post about women in tech has been sitting in my drafts, not even close to half-finished, for more than three years. It’s one of the many reasons I have an overwhelming feeling I’ve failed the tech community (admittedly in a small way) through my own lack of initiative, and that stinks.

I’ve missed innumerable opportunities to help change the prevailing “bad behavior” regarding women in technology in our community. Every time a woman (or I) complained about a man “stealing” an idea and getting the credit, every time I’ve been interrupted in a conversation and didn’t say anything, every person I should have coached on soft skills and didn’t. They’re all missed opportunities for improving the situation for women in tech that I passed up. As a manager and someone who loves this industry, I should feel ashamed.

So yeah- I’m not proud of the way I shirked my duty, and I’m sorry. But I want the generation behind me to know how I fucked up so they can do more for the community than I have so far… and without spending half their career learning the same lessons first.

Why I’m finally publishing this

Aside from just running out of patience, a couple of experiences I’ve had in the past week are so very indicative of what I believe to be core challenges in making measurable progress in this effort. I think it’s worth writing about.

“womeng” programs

I worked at Twitter — a company that values diversity and has a great women in engineering program — for two years (they also have a solid program for all women at the company). I wasn’t active in that community for various excuses. But Dropbox is just starting up a womeng group of their own, and I attended an initial session last week out of a sense of duty.

Here’s the thing about these efforts. Just like voluntary training for managers, the people who are already interested in supporting “the cause”, male or female, are already involved. 30 women attended that initial meeting last week. There were zero men. Zero! That’s a pretty insulated way to approach something as huge as changing the culture of such a male-dominated industry. I’m not saying that there aren’t men at the company who care and would participate- I know there are, and I would love to see them there. But they’re not the Target Audience for these efforts.

Men do participate in Twitter’s group, but the same applies. The men (and a couple of women, let’s be honest) who struggle with treating women with the same level of respect as men are not the ones who engage in those discussions in a meaningful way. Most of these people feel like their behavior is appropriate and that discussions about women in technology don’t apply to them. Want to make a womeng group really effective? Make discussion and training tailored to your workplace mandatory for everyone in the company, starting with the managers. There are many creative people out there who could pull this off without it being inflammatory or, on the other side of the spectrum, boring as hell.

I owe a specific 100-ish people an apology

I was a member of a panel (2 women, 2 men) about building SRE teams at a conference last week. Some brave soul asked something like, “The ratio of men to women in SWE functions seems to be improving, but SRE is still lagging behind. Why do you think that is? What can we do about it?”.

Bless your heart, whoever you are. Thank you for asking those questions.

Both myself and the other woman on the panel gave some honest, but kind of well-rehearsed answers, and then a strange thing happened: one of the men answered too! Unfortunately, his response only strengthened the opinion that men don’t understand the fundamental issues. But to those people who said afterward, “he should have just kept his mouth shut. lololol.”, I disagree. I guarantee his remarks not only offended the women in the audience (of which there were few), but many of the men as well. It sparked more conversation than anything else from that panel, and I say it’s a great thing it happened.

What I need to apologize for is not immediately correcting the panelist, who I believe in his heart of hearts was trying to help. I just sat there, too shocked to say anything. Hours later, I realized that that situation was the best illustration of the problem that we could have ever hoped to have. And I failed everyone in that room by not having the guts and confidence to point it out and to continue the conversation right then and there. It’s a very typical scenario for many women in our field.

Plain old guilt

I’m seriously disappointed in myself. For keeping my trap shut instead of defending myself. For letting my career suffer because I was too intimidated. For not doing more to pave the way for women who are just starting out in this field. For being too lazy with my time & energy to deliver tough messages to people who actually needed to hear it. That’s a lot of guilt to carry around, so I’m writing this in the hopes of preventing that experience for at least one woman entering the technical world. Because it sucks.

How I’m going to step up

During at least 80% of my evening commutes, I’m kicking myself about one or more of these. This is the advice I wish I could have given the ‘me’ of 15 years ago and what I should have been telling everyone during my career. But since time travel is still a couple of years away (!), I’ll have to settle for “being the change I want to see” now.

Participate

Whether you’re a man or a woman, get involved in the discussion. We all want this issue to be a thing of the past, and the only way that’ll happen is if things actually change. If your company has a diversity program, participate. If it doesn’t, there are discussions happening on social media and in meet-ups across the country. Give it a chance before you dismiss it as “not applicable”. The issues apply to and affect everyone in our industry. Spending an hour a month is a small price to pay for fixing what ails us.

Don’t make excuses for yourself or for others

It’s okay to be disappointed in yourself or in someone else. Just don’t make excuses. I catch myself doing this a few times a day:

“Oh, he means well- he probably didn’t realize he just took credit for my idea. Again.”

“He was just so excited he probably didn’t realize that he interrupted me in mid-sentence to explain my idea for me.”

“He was so nervous about his presentation that he probably didn’t realizehe addressed all of his comments to the men in the room and didn’t interact with a single woman.”

Sound familiar? Yep. I’ve done myself and everyone else in the organization a disservice by keeping these thoughts to myself. The majority of people will become defensive, even if you’re a master at providing constructive feedback. But those people will never realize what’s going on if no one reveals the blind spot. And you never know how much fruit you can reap down the road by planting one or two seeds. Don’t wuss out.

Speak up for yourself

Muster up the confidence to defend your position, idea, self. The more often you do it, the more lessons you learn about communicating, about people and about yourself. Communicating thoughts & feelings isn’t exactly the forté of the tech world, nor is listening to and accepting someone else’s position. If you’re uncomfortable, ask someone who has background with the organization and whom you trust for advice. It’s a fine line, and there are risks to voicing your opinion. But those should be acceptable risks. If it turns out to hurt your career, you should really consider whether the organization is right for you.

Don’t take it personally

There’s a lot of insecurity in our industry. That can breed misplaced aggression, taking credit for someone else’s work, being the loudest in the room, and many of the behaviors mentioned in this post. Getting defensive or taking it personally when it happens to you won’t improve matters, trust me. Do whatever you need to do to distance your personal stake from the situation — take 10 deep breaths, yell into a pillow, whatever. Just do it quickly, and provide timely feedback.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. If I work with you & you see me not doing any of the things above, kick me. Or maybe just send me an IM to call me out. I need the help. ☺