Every year, Harvey Nash conducts a survey of Information Technology leaders, asking about the priorities and challenges for the coming year. The topics shuffle up and down the list, rising higher one year, dropping lower in the next. But one thing stays the same, year after year.
In the U. S. and worldwide, women make up only 8–9% of senior leaders in technology.
The Silicon Valley frat-boys say it’s a “pipeline problem.” There just aren’t enough women pursuing computer science degrees. They can’t have gender diversity because there is no supply.
The numbers show that the pipeline issue is a red herring. Retention is by far the greater issue, and anyone who has read the stories coming out of our industry over the past few years has a pretty good idea of why.
My invitation to spend a day networking with other technology leaders was a stark lesson in why women leave technology for other fields at twice the rate of men.
“Every opportunity to forget”
I’m the Technology Director for a government agency. I’m not sure if I could have reached the same level in private industry. For all its frustrations, public sector has a much lower tolerance for sexism. It’s still there, and still a force to be reckoned with — but it isn’t as pervasive as in the private sector.
I had worked in tech for almost a decade before I met another female technician. Now, I lead a small department that is 50% female. In almost 30 years in the field, I have only met four Black technicians. The most recent is the network administrator we hired last year. I work in a diverse team, in an agency that includes “becoming an anti-racist, multicultural organization” in its mission and priorities.
In other words, I’ve had every opportunity to forget what it’s like out there.
The advertising for a “CIO Summit” looked interesting. A one-day event for networking with other technology leaders: Chief Information Officers, Directors, Managers throughout the field. Inspiring speakers — mostly male, including a former “Blue Angels” pilot. But they’d made an effort; tucked in among the half-dozen Old White Men was a female Chief Technology Officer from a locally-founded multinational.
A great opportunity to network, get acquainted with some of my corporate counterparts. Most of my group events are with other state technology folks. It would be good for me to open up my network a little. I thought the day would be a great opportunity to meet others, perhaps be a little more visible in the IT community. Instead, I’d find that my gender rendered me invisible.
I sign in, enter the room, and take a step to the side; a moment to look around and “get the lay of the land.” Round, 8-person tables rather than lecture-hall seating. Vendor booths at the back of the room, occupied by men in dark suits. Two of them have women in equally dark suits, but with skirts, spiked heels, and what appears to be the same shade of vibrant red lipstick.
Looking from one to the next, in their identical suits, impractical heels, and near-identical makeup, I can’t help but think Corporate Booth Babes.
Don’t be bitchy. These are sales professionals. They don’t write the rules — they just have to work twice as hard to succeed under them.
I adjust my attitude, and search the faces of the attendees. Two white women. One black man. And a sea of white men with a few scattered Asian faces, all male. So, pretty representative of tech overall…
The female CTO is scheduled late in the morning. She speaks, steps off stage to connect with a couple of the other presenters, then dashes out the door. The host steps up to the mic accompanied by a woman of color. She isn’t on the agenda , and for a moment I am pleased to discover that the event’s presenters are more diverse than originally advertised.
My smile wavers during the introduction. They’ve brought her up to highlight her charity for disadvantaged youth. They’ve given her a free vendor table at the event and encourage us to stop by and learn more about her efforts to provide opportunities through technician training.
Of course they have. Sigh.
Time is set aside in the agenda for “networking” — a chance to get acquainted with our colleagues. The other two women in the room are sitting together at the table next to mine, so I step over to greet them.
“Great to see other women in the room,” I smile.
The nearest woman looks up at me with wide, deer-in-the-headlights eyes. The other seizes the opportunity to drift backward and away, so she won’t be seen “huddling with her kind” when she should be networking with valuable people.
Deer-in-the-headlights sputters, then immediately launches into an impassioned declaration that she doesn’t have any problems with that. She leads a team of developers; they are all men and she never has any gender issues with them.
The Lady doth protest too much, methinks….
I let her escape as quickly as I gracefully can, and turn back to my table partners, striking up a conversation with the developer with whom I had been exchanging quiet asides and commentary throughout the presentations. We’re joined by a gentleman who turns out to be one of the remaining presenters. Deer-in-the-headlights runs off to the largest cluster of men in the room and stands silently at the periphery.
Mr. Dev expresses an opinion regarding one of the presentations, expanding on a thought he had muttered to me earlier. I begin to answer him, and am cut off. One of the vendors has walked up from behind my right shoulder and begun to speak to Dev.
Rude! Ah, well — I have a quiet voice and it’s a loud room. Maybe he didn’t realize I was speaking. Despite the fact that both men were facing me, and looking directly in my eyes in listening poses at the time. Sure.
I turn to Mr. Speaker and finish my sentence, as Mr. Dev walks off with the vendor.
Mr. Speaker offers a very insightful observation. I respond with a question — or try to. From my left, one of the conference staff strides up and addresses Mr. Speaker. I can’t even find a way to pretend that she didn’t see me speaking. Speaker turns to answer her and walks off at her side, leaving me standing alone.
I should go find another group, “do some networking.” My demoralized self needs a minute. I decide to go find the charity woman’s booth. I don’t see her among the vendors, and when I am able to finally catch the eye of one of the event staff, I am cheerily directed out toward the registration table.
I step out of the room and look around. Registration/sign-in table to my left, elevators to the right. The table is backed by a wall of windows looking out over the city. I step up to the window, using the view as an excuse to take a breath. On my left, behind a pillar, the charity woman sits alone at her table.
We have a lovely conversation, and I learn a lot about her organization’s efforts. I get her email and make a point of letting her know when our job postings go up. When the “networking break” is over, I stare briefly at the doors to the event hall, and turn toward the elevators instead.
Because this is what I do while I’m driving…
I roll those events over and over in my head as I drive back to the office. At first, I am furious with the event staffer, offended by the vendor. Then it dawns on me that both of the men with whom I had been speaking allowed it to happen. Neither of them said “Great! Be with you in a second — my colleague was speaking.” Both of them simply shut me off and engaged with the more-important person who felt entitled to their attention. Both of them walked away without a word to me.
I thought about the way that Deer-in-the-headlights jumped to insist she had encountered no gender issues — as if she feared just admitting they exist would be a black mark against her.
I thought about our nameless colleague, afraid to be seen “huddling” with “her kind” and the Token Charity Case relegated to an invisible corner outside the actual event venue (but expected to appreciate the “generosity” of being permitted to be present at all).
My post-event review is forthright.
Would you attend again? No
Please tell us why. My experience was so negative, I have no desire to attend another such event.
There is no follow up inquiry.
I look up the head of the company on LinkedIn and send him a message, letting him know that I’d like to talk about my experience at his recent event.
The next year I receive a personalized email inviting me to the upcoming CIO summit. I reply back that my previous experience was so negative, I’m really not interested in attending again, and request that they remove my name from their marketing list.
It’s been three or four years since then. I still get the invitation every year. I respond the same way each time. I have yet to ever receive a follow-up inquiry.
But the lady from the charity is a delight to deal with, and responds pleasantly every time I link her one of our job postings.
The other end of the pipeline
Computing started out as “women’s work.” Only after WWII, when it became clear that this was going to be Important Work, were women sidelined and cut out of the field. Breaking back in to the field we helped pioneer is still a work in progress.
Fewer women than men graduate with Computer Science degrees. But our industry is one in which certifications, practical experience, and business acumen are also critical skills.
As a proven technician, I went back to school and got my degree in Business, specifically to demonstrate to potential employers that I wasn’t “all about the tech,” but was capable of understanding the impact of technology on operations. I’m not unusual in that regard. What’s uncommon about me is that I am still in technology. More than half of women in tech leave the industry by mid-career, weary and worn down by the lack of opportunities and management support.
It’s not a “pipeline problem”. The problem is the muck-filled pool that the pipeline empties into.
I attended a networking event populated by my colleagues. In theory, we were all peers. And yet, even the vendors and hospitality staff felt comfortable interrupting my conversations without so much as acknowledging my presence. My colleagues saw nothing amiss with this, or with walking away from our conversation without so much as excusing themselves.
The endless stream of Silicon Valley Sexism Scandals are only the logical outcome of what was visible in that room. Or, more accurately, who was invisible. Who was silenced. Who was afraid to be seen associating with the “wrong” people (people just like herself). Who was paraded about to applaud the magnanimity of the host, then relegated to the middle of nowhere (the only female person of color in the room).
Statistics suggest that at least one, if not both, of those other women are no longer technology managers, or working in our field at all. If I were to go back this year, they’d likely be gone, and I might well be the only woman in the room.
Why I won’t go back
A year earlier, I was at the front of the room with three other female tech executives, “Inspiring Women In STEM,” answering questions from high school girls who hoped to pursue careers in Science and Technology. Visible. Respected. An example for young women to emulate.
But in a room full of my peers, it took less than five minutes for me to become not just invisible, but undeserving of even the most basic courtesy, from staff and colleagues alike. I walked in an equal. I walked out a child, a little girl dismissed and ignored so that the grown-ups could attend to business without being disturbed.
I won’t leave technology. It’s my profession, and I’m good at it. But I won’t go back into that room. I don’t think the generic speeches offer enough value to counteract the erasure and disrespect.
That’s what I tell myself.
I won’t go back into that room. Mostly because I can’t go back in that room. Can’t walk back in there believing I am finally an equal, only to encounter the stark reality: that just by being female, I am “less than.”
But mostly, I won’t go back because no-one involved — from the staff to my colleagues to the head of the company that sponsored the event — thinks that’s a problem worthy of their attention.