Good bye, fare well, and ah, men

Goodbye Yesterday / Hello Tomorrow — photograph by Gwydion M. Williams

I am leaving. It is the healthiest action I can take at this time, with the best outcomes for all.

In 1990 I moved to Waterloo Region, for reasons that were naive and have not mattered for many years now. In 1997 I began what I’d not intended to be a long career arc at the University of Waterloo.

Now I am moving out of Waterloo Region. More importantly to me, I am moving away from UW. Neither the region nor the university is a welcoming place for someone who, however pale their skin, does not fit the expected norms of behaviour and appearance and type of work. I also freely admit that the espoused values of my employer are orthogonal to my own. I would cripple disruption and meritocracy in their formation (both values I see as problematic as practiced) if it would save the future of equity and inclusiveness.

The university is not a healthy place for me and for several others. It’s beyond what I can achieve with the resources I have available to change that. Some of the symptoms I’m aware of are:

  • KPIs used as indicators of success don’t reliably measure meaningful outcomes as they affect the lives and accomplishments of students and employees in the university community (e.g. top 100 employers, Maclean’s rankings).
  • Employees (both faculty and staff) moved or hired into leadership/management roles are often not given the tools and support needed to make a successful transition. I am aware of work underway to document some issues and recommend changes.
  • An average of 11 students attempt suicide every week [source: March Imprint, the student newspaper]. Figures for employees are not available, in part because suicide is treated as a youth issue despite evidence suicide rates and related mental health crises occur across multiple demographics including older men.
  • Business practices that vary widely between and within units, without demonstrated need for these differences. Inconsistent interpretation of policies that are at their heart largely paternalistic is not the only contributing factor, though several have heard me speak to the need for fundamental reforms in this area.
  • The outcome of disciplinary measures depends heavily on pre-existing relationships between the person reported as committing an infraction and their management chain. Some people are perceived as too valuable or too fragile to subject to workplace or academic discipline.
  • Although our Organizational Development group provides excellent professional development opportunities, their reach is limited. Based on my experiences over the years, a core of several dozen staff and close to zero faculty are regular consumers of their courses.
  • Silos within and between functions: in addition to people being overly protective of their domains (to the point of inhibiting business processes due to lack of information sharing), there are problems where Groups A, B, C duplicate each other’s work because key people in each group won’t speak with the others.
  • The refusal of people in leadership positions to take ownership of business issues where they can affect meaningful change at little cost. I have seen this repeatedly in the handling of gender identity.
  • Stagnation: employees tend to reach a certain level of comfort and stop looking for opportunities to expand their horizons, move to other areas, or consider a secondment.
  • Information on services available to members of the university community is fragmented (despite many efforts to fix this specific issue over the years). It is unclear in places which services apply to which groups (e.g. recent announcements about mental health for all members of the community providing information on services only available to students). An individual in need of a service may not be readily able to find (through self directed search or appeal to leaders, e.g. Dons in Housing, managers and Chairs for employees) valid information on supports they can use.

Improving any, or even all, the above symptoms, is a stopgap at best and at worst a path to deluding ourselves that the underlying cultural illness has been cured. Leadership and fundamental change at all levels are key to a sustainable solution.

I am a technologist and a leader of people. In the past five years, I have been accountable for the delivery of IT infrastructure, services, and support to the Faculty of Arts. I have some proud accomplishments from this position and other earlier ones I have held over close to twenty years. A select few:

  • I was the first woman (that’s not exactly correct but it’s the box people put me in most consistently) hired by the Math Faculty Computing Facility to focus on software development and technology management.
  • I worked on and contributed to Sendmail, OpenSSL, Apache, and several other large open source software projects with bug fixes, patches, and some localizations that did not get passed back to the trunk maintainers. I did not find any big bugs in BIND, though I did contribute a BIND back end to the Maintain IPAM project managed by Ohio State University’s Open Source Lab and got positive feedback on it from several users at other universities.
  • I established myself as the campus expert on email, DNS, DHCP, web server configuration, and SNMP. And I held space for others to take on those roles when they were ready.
  • I built an automated registration system that allowed students moving into residence to plug their home computer into the network and have it Just Work with no manual intervention over 95% of the time.
  • I worked with a set of solid colleagues to build a clustered student email service that is still in operation today. I won’t be sad to see it turned off: it’s well past the life we’d originally anticipated for it.
  • I informed and guided the design of computing and networking services for multiple sites both at Waterloo and in other cities.
  • I learned how to be an effective team lead, supervisor, manager, and director of technology. I have handled the entire employee lifecycle from designing a new or changed position through recruiting, onboarding, professional development, and termination.
  • I helped people develop personally and professionally, both within and outside my reporting structure.
  • I handled inherited “problem employees” and developing performance issues with skill that was remarked on by Human Resources professionals as exemplary.
  • I provided ethical and professional guidance to people in many difficult situations. It is an honour to have earned the confidence of each of these individuals.
  • I insisted on treating people humanely and did what I can to shift cultural assumptions along several dimensions. I have left (and am leaving) behind units, groups, and leadership that are in better shape than the ones I found when I arrived.
  • I built relationships and guidance for maintaining effective communication where there had previously been irreconcilable divisiveness.

I don’t owe anyone an answer to the question “why are you leaving now?” I especially don’t owe the world at large the intimate details of my life, which would illuminate the “now” part of that question. To quell the questions from those who insist on having a reason for things, I will provide a few examples of the crap I have walked through, breathed, eaten in my time here:

  • Being shouted at in more than one meeting by someone’s Golden Boy because I provided facts to back up an opinion that his way of doing something was inadvisable.
  • Hearing rumours about an affair I was supposedly having with a colleague whose expertise overlapped my own. We did stop discussing tech issues over coffee except as part of larger groups.
  • Having a boss who engaged in “under the radar” sexual harassment for years.
  • Having a substantial body of my work claimed by a colleague brazen enough to replace my name with his own.
  • Regularly being ignored, spoken over, and having my ideas presented as belonging to others at meetings.
  • My involvement (ranging from peripheral to a key figure) in a few disputes that went to management and formal mediation, and more that didn’t. Some of my (not all former) colleagues are bullies and assholes.
  • A respected leader of men told me I did not have what it takes to be any kind of team lead, let alone manager, and should not bother trying, then went out of his way to actively block opportunities for me to advance.

I’m leaving behind some good, admirable people. That’s by design: I’ve fixed things up in ways that will tend to self-perpetuate, as I am driven to do in all communities I join. My stealth team has been at work improving their environments in myriad ways for years and their influence is spreading.

I believe the current senior leadership of UW and the organization itself are not functioning in ways that are conducive to the career, engagement, or health of people like me or several people I care most deeply about. Some health and personal crises experienced by others in positions equal or more senior to than my own drove that one home, and the wheel of quiet stepping down continues to turn in curious ways.

The obvious place on campus for a next career move is non-viable for reasons that people who know me well enough should be able to figure out. I see large problems both in IT and in the organization as a whole that aren’t being met with leadership I have confidence in to handle effectively. I’d like to be wrong about that; I’m done waiting and encouraging.

And the region, which I mentioned earlier. I am someone who does not perform the expected gender, who does not conform to expected norms of appearance and behaviour in the community, who fought mightily to get some people in positions of power to treat a class of human beings as persons and made a difference with major help from members of a queer community where Ungentle Writer has beautiful, powerful allies but in the end doesn’t fit. My struggle to find community where I can be myself is nothing compared to what some people I know and love go through, but the weight of unpersoning and hatred and judgement strangers (as well as acquaintances who should know better) heap upon me on an ongoing basis wears a person down.

I don’t like specific aspects of the person I have become to survive (and in some measures, to succeed) in the environments I now live and work in. It’s serious when my beloved gently calls me a misanthrope: I love people and I can’t stand them and the gulf aches. I know an environment that has solid promise to be better for me. To help me continue to become the better person I want to be, the comfortable-in-his-skin dork and provider of wise counsel I want others to know.

I am leaving so I can continue growing and learning and becoming the best person I am capable of being. Not today, but soon. Staying stopped being a viable option for me a long time ago and there are no longer any compelling reasons for me to remain.

I hope I stay in touch with at least some of the many inspiring people I’ve had the privilege to meet. I hope to never again hear of or from at least some of the shitlords. Inevitably, I’ll do less well than I’d like on both counts. I have high standards for myself.

Take care, eh. Be excellent to yourselves, and to each other. I’ll be around somewhere, quietly making things a little better.