Somewhere in the first paragraph of Sheryl Sandberg’s tribute to her husband Dave, I started to cry. I never knew anything about Dave, but it became immediately clear that the world lost a strong supporter of women in the workplace, not to mention a loving friend, husband, and father. Dave was more than an advocate for gender equality. His actions embodied his beliefs, with his family and in his work. People like Dave are rare in the tech industry today, and I hope his legacy inspires many more people in my generation to embrace these qualities.
I wish I could say such a tragic event isn’t what made me decide to read Lean In, but when the book was originally published I brushed it off as “just another feminist manifesto.” It is actually exactly that (Sheryl admits it herself in the introduction), but it’s also incredibly relatable and the start of what I hope is a dramatic shift in the way women are treated in the workplace.
If I had to guess the demographics of Lean In readers, I’d venture 95% female. And while I wholeheartedly agree that women need to do a better job of being their own advocates, we’re only half of the picture. If we lean in without support, we’ll fall. I have yet to meet a guy who’s read Lean In, and my few suggestions directed at male friends to read it have been met with laughter. But if awareness is the first step towards a world where female engineers and CEOs are just engineers and CEOs, I would argue that it’s more important for men to read Lean In than women. I truly believe that empowering women to stay in tech is the first step towards encouraging more to join.
“We need to hire more women”
This seems to be the instinctive reaction to fixing the gender imbalance in tech. It makes perfect sense, right? If there aren’t enough women, set a goal to hire more. But saying “we need to hire more women” is as arbitrary as saying “we need to hire more people over 50” or “we need to hire more people from the Midwest.” What companies should be saying is “we need to hire more people who are amazing at what they do.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be selected for a job or chosen to speak at a conference to increase diversity numbers. I want to be chosen because someone thinks I bring something awesome to the table. I didn’t choose to be a woman, or to be 24, or to be Jewish. But I did choose to make a career change to programming, and I think that’s pretty cool.
The gender imbalance isn’t what needs fixing
A colleague of mine always warns us against quickly proposing a solution to a usability bug before getting a deep understanding of the problem. I think that’s exactly what’s happening in the tech industry. Rather than trying to bring more women to tech, we need to focus on the women who have chosen to be here and empower them to stay.
I don’t get upset when I see a company about page or conference speaker list with 90% men, but I do get upset when the women who have chosen tech aren’t treated with respect. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a developer-focused event where someone (men and women are guilty of this) assumes I can’t code because I’m a woman, or when someone is surprised when they hear I do write code. I’ve had someone ask me if I’m a recruiter after a male colleague introduced himself. I’ve been asked if there will be someone around later to answer their technical questions. I’ve been asked if I’m dating a male co-worker I’m staffing an event with. These are small incidents, but when compounded they make women want to leave the industry.
One of my favorite conferences to present at was JS Conf EU. In the first round of their call for paper review, they only look at the title and abstract for each submission they receive. They don’t know anything about the speaker: their gender, location, company, title — anything. Interestingly, each year this conference has attracted some of the highest quality talks from the most diverse group of speakers of any tech conference I’ve attended. People are more inclined to participate because they know they’re being selected solely on the basis of what they can contribute. It’s a great approach that I think should be used beyond the conference circuit.
Have an open mind
The solution I’m proposing is simple: have an open mind. When you meet a woman at a tech event, ask her what she does before jumping to your own conclusion. Assume that she’s here because she wants to be, and that she’s chosen a career in technology because it’s exciting, always changing, and full of potential. I think it certainly is.
Dave Goldberg was not only a champion of women in the workplace, he was an icon for the men who make it possible. He showed us that men have a critical role in making women feel supported at work. Women-only groups can be effective, but ultimately men are the majority and we need their help to elicit change. We can all be more like Dave.
Getting more women in tech is a hopeful outcome, but it’s definitely not the solution. It will happen organically when the women who are here feel fully supported. When you hear someone say the tech industry needs more women, I urge you to think of the women on your team before the ones who have yet to join. We’re more than a statistic and we deserve to be judged for our work, ideas, and opinions — not for our gender.