It’s Not Biology, But The Sexist Culture That Is Driving Women Away From Tech.

To women in tech, don’t quit. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Credit: The Gateway

Any acronyms used are to illustrate personal anecdotes and aren’t critical to the main discussion points. Hence, the acronyms haven’t been expanded.


November 1999. Washington DC.
At my first ever IETF session, Dino was discussing PIM-SM with authority. When it was time for Q&A, I got in line.

“Don’t you think RP redundancy could be better designed with a distributed protocol to allow for autonomous recovery?” I asked. At that instant, it was all eyes on me.

As Scott Bradner would fill me in later, they hadn’t had “enthusiastic new blood” in years. For many IETFs that follow, Scott would encourage me to keep bringing ideas.

Between sessions, a cute guy came over to talk. Minutes later, he gave me his number with “Luke Skywalker” written on it. Apparently, geeky young women were in demand.

At the social, another guy hit on me. I told him I had a boyfriend. It didn’t matter. He went on to tell me that he had a thing for intelligent Indian women and should my boyfriend and I break up, I should call him. Or just call him anyway.

That started my real exposure to the men’s world that defines tech. Some of the most egregious experiences would prepare me for my career in tech.

Following my article on diversity, people have asked me to write about hostility in the work environment for women. Here are some of my experiences.

Bar BoFs Aka Alcohol

Yes, it’s a thing. Bar BoFs are about people getting together over drinks to discuss ideas. At the first bar BoF I attended, I was in a deep discussion when I was offered beer. I politely declined and told people that I don’t drink beer.

“You’re at a bar BoF. You can’t possibly say no to beer. Now is the time.”

“Well, you should try this beer, you’ll love it!” They even sounded convincing.

After too many such offers, I asked the bartender for some Shiraz instead.

“The girl knows her wine!” I heard someone exclaim.

I learned that you pretty much fell into some category whether you drank or didn’t and whether you drank the beverage of their choice or yours.

In the years that followed, I attended numerous Bar BoFs, learned to firmly say no to alcohol and stick to my agenda.

It’s not that I didn’t drink. But, I had no reason to drink with random people. I drink when I want to with whom I feel comfortable.

The alcohol culture puts women instantly at a disadvantage. We feel unsafe, uninvited, and unproductive.

The Ladder

A fairly successful woman once confessed to me — “You know, as women, we must start at note-taking and rise up. It’s so tough to be heard. But, I went from note-taker to a document editor to a working group chair. It’s doable, just takes time.”

Hearing that made me very resilient very fast. I went on to cut through all protocols to become a working group chair and a member of the Security Directorate by refusing inequality and taking a seat at the table.

My chats with Radia Perlman would reveal tests of endurance that the strongest of women had to go through to “make it” in the tech scene.

To the women who are led to believe there is a (slow) path to the ladder, there isn’t. Think non-linear, think equal.

Stalking And Threats

When Jari Arkko asked me to take up the working group chair role for NETLMM, he warned me it was going to be contentious. But, he did not give me a heads up about the possible stalking. That role would end up having me stalked and threatened over emails for decisions I made.

The stalking would eventually need friends chaperone me at socials to maintain my sanity. Thank goodness for my friends in tech!

Contentious settings can put women in vulnerable situations. Remember, we don’t have to give in.

And it helps to have friends.

Inappropriate Banter

It was Paris. I was out drinking after a long day with a couple of friendly male engineers. Everything was great until it wasn’t.

“So, that guy has a thing for you” said one of them.

I pretended to not hear it and tried to move on.

“You know, he really wants to get married. He said so himself many times.”

“What he wants is someone smart and sexy. You’re smart and sexy!”

I tuned out as they then discussed strip clubs and shoving dollar bills up women’s panties and breathed in relief when I finally got out of there!

It’s not that women don’t engage in inappropriate banter. But, we’d do it with people we feel extremely secure. A work environment promoting such banter is not okay.

Dominated and Drowned Out

An aside: The mobility and security people rarely came together. The security area looked down upon the mobility area as a bunch of people who brought frivolous extensions to routing that endangered the Internet. The mobility area looked at the security area as a bunch of stuck up people who lacked any sense of practicality. They were both right.

I was a masochist to straddle both areas rather deeply. In 2006, I decided I wanted to take on the IPsec war for mobile.

It was the bloodiest of experiences I’ve had at the IETF. I moderated a discussion with 20 some seriously powerful male voices at the table as the only woman.

After years of slow and painful progress, I’d end up withdrawing my authorship from that draft as a matter of principle, not wanting to be associated with something that had lost all its goals in compromises. The authors left an honorary mention for me in acknowledgments.

Even as women, we can stand up for ourselves and our principles and be respected for that. Yes, we can.

Dirty Politics

In 2007, I signed up to be on the NomCom. It was my first foray into some seriously dirty politics. I encountered men who would do just about anything to win.

To honor confidentiality, I will refrain from specifics. But this experience would prepare me for tech management roles rapidly.

As part of this journey, I would come to learn mature tactics to deal with bullies and prove that elbowing me could actually be somewhat difficult.

In closed room settings, politics can be an unnerving experience for women. It is extremely easy to give up being in management as a result.

In no way are things “normal” or “easy” for women. When we enter tech, we enter an inherently hostile and sexist environment which feels casual and normal to the men. Most men don’t even realize it’s not so for women.

To the women in tech trying to make it, stay strong. I won’t lie that there isn’t sexism. That there isn’t hostility. That there isn’t unfair treatment. But, we can cut through it, starting with self-imposed equality.

To the men in tech who want to create a better environment for women, I hope this sheds some light on where things are not constructive at the moment.

Amidst all the sexism I encountered at the IETF, I also met my strongest mentors and friends. These people who helped me realize my full potential and feel equal were among those that influenced my technology and leadership skills the most.

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