Dissecting the notion of ‘women in tech’

Last week, in the middle of organizing droidconIN, my co-founder posted Lea Verou’s article on “My positive experience as a woman in tech”. I read the article and I had three reactions:

  1. For some unknown reason, I recollected this one time when I was eating dinner with a (male) speaker who’s talk we had hosted in our premises. At the dinner were my (male) co-founder, my (male) colleague, the speaker, a (male) person working in his (large) company, my little daughter and me. When the dinner got over, the speaker’s colleague shook hands with my co-founder and colleague, asked for their visiting cards, and walked off. I did not exist for this person. My daughter started bawling right after. I had to take her to the car to feed her and put her to sleep. Just when I was feeding, the speaker came over and knocked at the window. I rolled the glass down. He shook hands with me and warmly said good-bye. I was touched. On the way back home, my co-founder remarked something to the effect of “I was watching the speaker’s colleague behave. I didn’t expect any better from him.” My c0-founder acknowledged the sexist behaviour I had just encountered.*
  2. As I read through Verou’s article over and over again, I found myself saying: sexism, as much as it is a matter of self perceptions and one’s internal biases, it is also a matter of the milieus and cultures that we are part of. Some cultures and milieus simply reinforce your internal biases and make you feel less about yourself, and lead you to question your life’s choices. This is certainly true for me.
  3. Lastly, I realized that self-confidence plays a huge role in shaping one’s responses to perceived and real sexism. As I read Lea’s article and Nataly’s response to it, it occurred to me that nothing succeeds like success. Writing blogs and articles, speaking in public, being part of influential committees, and participating in conferences are extremely critical to reinforce one’s sense of self, success, visibility and confidence. I have started to experience this for myself (once again, after having had a successful stint of being an influential and popular researcher and writer in social sciences six years ago).

Coincidentally — and honestly, it was a massive coincidence – that just that evening after reading Lea’s article, I also attended a chat on “#WomenInTech” hosted at the Twitter office in Bangalore. The discussion that evening had many resonances to Lea’s article and to what I was thinking. I was particularly struck by two points Lea alluded to in her article:

1. “Given that hardly anybody over ten will flat out admit they think women are inferior (even to themselves), it’s often hard to tell when a certain behaviour stems from sexist beliefs.”
2. “… I would rather not call out sexist behavior ten times, than wrongly accuse someone of it once. It might also have to do with my personality: I’m generally confident and can be very assertive. When somebody is being a jerk to me, I will not curl in a ball and question my life choices, I will reply to them in the same tone. However, those two alone cannot make the difference between a pit rampant with sexism and an egalitarian paradise.”

I kept thinking over and over again what was it was about the second point in the article that bothered me. I couldn’t bring myself to completely agree with the argument that one’s personality and biases played a huge role in perceptions of sexism. I believe the environment, in a good measure, affects one’s confidence about oneself and one’s life choices, as well as one’s status and position in the industry and society. It does contribute to the gap between the pit rampant with sexism and an egalitarian paradise.

In the last five years, I have always questioned my life’s choices when someone has made a remark that I perceived as (or was actually) hurtful. This is because I am neither a practising techie, nor do I belong to the tech communities for who I organize conferences. Neither do I identify with startup founders and communities . Therefore, I am always seeing myself as an outsider. Plus, I move around, invariably, in Bangalore tech, startup and VC circles where I often perceive a great deal of value attached to certain groups of people who perform certain kinds of labour in tech. This again leads me to question my status in industry and society.** Jut when I was questioning Lea’s argument about one’s personality and confidence and the impact it has on perceptions of sexism and egalitarianism, someone made the following remark during the Twitter chat on #WomenInTech,

“… a woman’s low confidence comes from what questions they are constantly being asked”

This indicates clearly that the external environment also has a role to play in the questions that one asks about her life’s choices. Mind you, these questions come from both men and women and therefore, we also need to nuance sexism as not just women at the receiving end from men, but also from other women. For instance, couple of years ago, I was trying to get an invitation to attend an internal event organized by a company that sponsors our conferences. I wanted to understand how they curated content, what their motivations were to organize a conference along the lines of what we professionally conducted, who were their speakers, and what we could learn from them about content and conference organizing. When I asked for an invitation, the HR person in the company (who I had interacted with during sponsorships for our conferences), immediately remarked: “this event is for techies. What will you do here?” I explained my motivations to her, but couldn’t help feeling hurt about being perceived as a ‘just an event organizer’ back then. I have fielded similar questions and remarks regularly in the last five years. People have even failed to believe that I curate each and every conference we organize because fundamentally, I am not a techie (who has a techie co-founder). I know a rat’s arse about JavaScript or DevOps or machine learning. Yet, I work with some of the best programmers, community representatives and speakers to understand trends and put together some of the best technology conferences in India.

This brings me to the moot point which motivated me to write this blog post. “Women in tech” is a nice phrase that has become important and fashionable these days. However, the phrase needs dissection and more nuancing.

There are women in tech who are programmers and women in tech who are not programmers. There are advocates, policy makers, researchers, marketing heads, product managers, HR personnel, administrators, secretaries, startup founders, CTOs, and a whole slew of staff that may or may not directly code as part of their professions and work responsibilities. However, the organization of labour in tech industry (and this is the case for any industry or government organization for that matter), is such that some forms of labour (such as writing code or building ‘internet products’ or ‘creating user interfaces’) are glorified and paid more than other tasks and forms of labour. Such division of labour and labelling some labour as productive / creative / contributing to the economy / important for financial growth reinforces our own perceptions – as men and women — about the ‘value’ of our labours, the ‘cost’ of our labours, our self worth and our self esteem. I see it as double whammy for a woman who is not a programmer and is in charge of marketing or business or HR. Her position is invariably seen as lesser than someone who is designing user interfaces or building apps or writing code in general. Or rather, the former is seen as ‘technically incompetent’ or ‘technically less competent’, even when that may not always be the case. This then affects the questions she fields from her environment, which may often be aimed at her background knowledge or technical expertise.

There is also another, rather well-known, side to the story of women (and men) in tech — the imposter syndrome. I am certain that as much as this syndrome bothers all of us (men and women alike and un-alike), in different quantities and measurements, it gets worse for women who are in tech but are not practising programmers (and are always conscious of their status in the industry, ecosystem and society). I noticed on the panel at the Twitter #WomenInTech event, where one of the panelists made a remark about how she is not a techie and therefore she doesn’t know why she has been asked to be on this panel. I have myself been apologetic on occasions about the fact of not being a techie or a seasoned entrepreneur and addressing audiences as if I were an expert on one of the two subjects.

There is one last nuance that I wish to point out here. As a non-techie, I felt very welcome and comfortable among programmers and developers in the initial years when we ran conferences. The warmth was one of the compelling factors that motivated me to put together conferences with all my heart and soul. Over the years, the soul and heart have been lacking because more and more participants in our conferences are now from large companies and organizations (and the number of individuals coming to the conference for the love of community is dwindling).

During interactions with personnel from these companies, I have found that organizations which are extremely hierarchical — where labour and the division of labour are tightly knit with the person occupying the position – there is greater insensitivity towards nuances of gender, labour, social position and hierarchy. It is not uncommon for individuals from such organizations to make insensitive remarks and/or to treat people shabbily. At HasGeek, we are trying to make a dent in such organizations by reinforcing the culture of self-help at the conferences, even when the company is a sponsor or sending several of its representatives.

By way of a conclusion, I want to summarize and add a few points:

  1. I definitely agree with Lea and Nataly that we need more stories and reports of women programmers about their positive experiences in technology. Without these experiences and reports, it will be more difficult to motivate women and young girls (including my daughter) to consider coding / software development / programming and join the industry.
  2. Nothing succeeds like success. If you are a successful woman, you need to bring out your success story to encourage more women to write and speak about their work, and come out more confidently about their contributions to technology, society and economy.
  3. “Women in tech” is not a homogeneous composition and needs more dissecting and nuancing.
  4. Division of labour in tech (and any other industry for that matter) reinforces one’s perceptions of one’s position in the immediate milieu, society and industry. This, in turn, affects women’s (and men’s) self confidence, perceptions of their contributions to society and industry, and how they field questions about their life’s choices and professions.
  5. We also need more stories and reports from women in tech who are not practising programmers, but are performing other forms of labour / occupying different positions. The bigger questions in this case, for this group of women, will be about their sense of belonging to the ecosystem and how or which communities these women (including myself) belong to. The sense of belonging to a community (for conversations) is also a key driver in influencing perceptions about one’s sense of self, self worth and confidence.

All in all, thanks Lea Verou for starting this trail of positive experiences, and for compelling me to put down these thoughts.

*While writing about this episode, it struck me that at the time I was in Kashmir, trying to understand conflict and oppression, many of the men wouldn’t come forward to shake hands with me. They’d say it is against their culture or religion to shake hands with me. I realize now that they were afraid of being corrupted by their own faith if they were to shake hands with me.

**Division of labour is also quite stark in academia. In social sciences, we place greater value on creating new theories and frameworks rather than on fieldwork. Field researchers are often paid less than the person(s) sitting in their cabins, reading books and trying to think up new ways of explaining society. Similarly, academicians try to run away from administrative work which involves sorting papers, organizing travel and acco for speakers traveling to conferences, etc. Some of the works get assigned to TAs or are assumed to be the job of a woman in the administrative wing.

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