Beyond Storytelling: Actionable Ways to Help with Tech’s “Woman Problem”

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I recently read a Stanford student’s account of being “floored” by sexism in the workplace. I was more floored that many people seem not to realize how pervasive this student’s experiences are. I work for a large tech company as a software engineer. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been mistaken for a recruiter, mistaken for a man, mistaken for other women in my job position (because apparently there is only one of us), talked over in a meeting, or told off for not knowing a term or concept. And I consider myself lucky that I’ve never dealt with explicit sexual harassment in my workplace, a gift I attribute to loudly and frequently announcing that I only date women. But I don’t want to talk about my tragic life as a female programmer. How many times do we have to tell these stories before they become real — before we all agree that this is a problem, and more than that, agree to do something about it? The conversation around sexism in the tech industry is completely halted in the “telling our stories” phase. I am sick of talking about “tech’s diversity problem.” I want to move the conversation forward, and I want to make things better.


 

Actionable Allyship

Though allyship as a concept has its issues, we must find meaningful ways to engage allies in this conversation if we seek to improve or eradicate sexism in tech. What would active and actionable allyship look like? The Ada Initiative, a non profit supporting women in “open technology and culture,” runs an Ally Skills Workshop focused on awareness of issues faced by women in technology and bystander intervention for men to contribute to combating those issues. For example, men role play situations in which they call others out for everything from casual sexism to harassment. The workshop is intentionally queer and trans inclusive, and Ada Initiative will send experienced facilitators to workplaces and nonprofits to lead it.

Sometimes active allyship is more subtle than bystander intervention. I couldn’t begin to enumerate the number of impostor syndrome inducing lunchtime debates about programming languages, the disbelief that I don’t play video games or generally participate in many aspects of “programming culture.” We need to change what programming culture looks like. Both women and allies can and should actively work to combat the dominant narrative of programmers. Some programmers love videogames; some don’t. Some were given a computer for their fifth birthday, some (like me) didn’t start programming until college, and some are self-taught much later than that. I believe it’s possible to create a space where all these stories are welcome, and where your interests and background doesn’t determine your technical aptitude. A shift away from the dominant narrative requires all of us in tech to take responsibility for the spaces we create.

Additional reading that you can send along to would-be allies: Six Ways to Support a Diverse Work Culture, So You Want to Be an Ally, Making Tech Spaces Safe for Diverse Faces.


 

Visibility

We’ve already covered how visibility is a huge issue, but why does this have to be the case? Though women in tech make up far less than 50% of leadership teams at major tech companies, we certainly don’t comprise 0% of leadership. Grace Hopper Conference boasts 8,000 attendees, and yet still women fight the problematic assumption that they simply can’t be an engineer because there are so few of us. The longer this conversation stays focused on how few of us there are, the more we take away the opportunity to tell success stories.

How do we concretely improve visibility? Give women the stage at major tech events, and let them actually speak. And don’t give women the stage to fill a quota or talk about gender issues. Give them the stage because incredible women in tech really do exist. For those of us that don’t select keynote speakers at major tech events, we can start by learning these women’s names, the companies they’ve founded, their achievements. Here’s a list of 50 to get you started. Other efforts exist to provide more concrete visibility, for example Project Diane seeks to “disrupt pattern-matching in tech by identifying black women founders of tech enabled companies.” By creating whatever platforms we can for women founders, programmers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, we offer role models for those of us who are just starting out, who are discouraged by tech culture, who need to know that people like us can succeed.


 

Go Beyond “Lean In” Tech Feminism

I probably don’t have to convince you that “Lean In”style feminism is grossly inadequate, and basically excludes all non-straight, white, cis, educated women. With Cheryl Sandberg as possibly the most famous voice in this conversation, existing solutions tend to center on the most privileged women while leaving the most vulnerable women behind. For an industry that claims to be so progressive, we lack any acknowledgment of intersectionality when we approach this issue.

The much-needed ability to design solutions that center trans women, women of color, and women who took nontraditional paths into technology requires a major change in perspective. We currently seem to think of this issue in two types of changes: recruiting (the pipeline is so small and this is why we can’t hire women, so we must increase the size of the pipeline), or changing women’s behavior (Lean In). We can’t fix this problem unless we acknowledge the real and systemic discrimination that marginalized women face, even in the so-called meritocracy of the tech industry, and then fix those issues instead. Let’s change men’s behavior by actually taking sexual harassment in the workplace seriously. Companies need to reexamine hiring and promotion processes under the lens of discrimination. We also can and must use the above suggestions for allyship and visibility to help all women, not just cis, white women.


 

How You Can Help Right The F*ck Now

Last year, I taught at Bootstrap, an open source functional programming curriculum to middle schoolers through Citizen Schools to try to increase accessibility of programming in low income middle schools. Similar organizations you can get involved with, donate time or money are Mother Coders, TransTech Social Enterprises, Black Girls Code, Hack the Hood, CODE2040, and Girls who Code.

How are you moving beyond storytelling into action? Please let me know in the comments!


This has been the one-hundred-twenty-third installment of  Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to bookmark to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Header by Rory Midhani.

 


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Software Engineer, Autostraddle intern, and bay area native. Chloe recently packed her life into 5 boxes to live in Switzerland for the indefinite future. Primary interests include gender issues in tech and her growing collection of onesies. She can be reached at chloe [at] autostraddle [dot] com.

Chloe has written 7 articles for us.

6 Comments

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    “The longer this conversation stays focused on how few of us there are, the more we take away the opportunity to tell success stories.” <– yes!

    Thank you so much for this, Chloe! I don't know a lot about the tech field, but I do know that this is a wonderfully insightful article that I very much appreciated. Keep being awesome!

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    I like this post a lot! Here’s some things I think will do loads to help the current generation of tech industry women.

    – Sharing anti-sexist strategies! One time a Geek Feminism contributor made a bot that quoted women in tech whenever it heard “that’s what she said”. (http://geekfeminism.org/2012/03/19/what-she-really-said-fighting-sexist-jokes-the-geeky-way/). Not gonna work in everyone’s workplace, obvs, but hearing about women doing stuff that’s funny AND effective is really cool.

    – Like you said, sharing positive stuff. A while back when I was teaching myself tech skillz but before I got a job using them, I wrote about teaching myself web design. Hopefully it’ll inspire some people in the same kinda position I was in to claw their own way out of the service industry by teaching themselves things from the internet!

    – Making community spaces – Geek Feminism is one cool one, another option is mailing lists like Ada’s List, where you can find and post job ads as well as being a cool supportive place for talking about stuff like Twitter harassment.

    – And also, if you’re involved in hiring people, making sure you look for diverse candidates. I just started a new job and in an office of at least thirty techie people, my team of five has the only two women doing IT. Even though we’re working in one of the areas that’s supposedly much more difficult to recruit women. We’re out there. If you’re not lazy or sexist when you’re recruiting, you’ll find awesome women.

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      “If you’re not lazy or sexist when you’re recruiting, you’ll find awesome women.”

      ALL of that! Also yes to community spaces, sharing positive things, strategies, etc. thanks for the list!

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    Recruit girls into math, computer science, and hard sciences while in middle school and high school. Mentor young women in college in STEM fields. Mentor women and foster diverse working groups on the job. Provide on site childcare and equal amounts of maternity and paternity leave and insist on both genders taking at least a required minimum of it. Men and women executives step in and take an active role in guiding, advising and promoting competent women to more advanced positions. Realize that rewarding excellence means recognizing it in someone who does not look like you did when you were young and less experienced, because leadership comes in all colors and genders and from all sorts of backgrounds. This is what my wife, who is fairly high and still advancing in the tech field, tells me.

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    Important topic frequently discussed by my science friends and I.

    Links I found encouraging: Emily Graslie of Brain Scoop / Chicago Field Museum does a great job explaining gender bias and giving concrete suggestions to improve it, with data and humor! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRNt7ZLY0Kc

    Concrete examples of allyship that make real impact by UC Prof Jonathan Eisen, who turned down an endowed lectureship to protest lack of gender diversity, for example. His blog does a great job showing analysis of gender stats, combined with concrete actions he continues to take to increase women in STEM: http://phylogenomics.blogspot.com/2014/07/turning-down-endowed-lectureship.html

    I also like the Gender Bias Bingo link for learning to identify common traps, like Double Jeopardy and Confirmation Bias: http://www.genderbiasbingo.com/glossary/#.VSrxMGbutKo

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