Last night I Tweeted an inside-voice thought identifying a panel of Obama For America tech-team folks speaking at PARC, as a “Boys Club”. I quickly found myself whomped upside the head by 3 of the guys involved, Tweeting back that they found my thought to be harsh, uninformed, and unfair. That my Tweet made assumptions about their character as individuals—that had I done my homework, I would feel differently.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. IT WAS their public veneer of appearance, that I found so troublesome. More troublesome, was learning that there were in fact women on the team—bright ones with vision & mettle, to boot—and behind the team’s success, just as much as most of the guys.
It’s not that as individuals, the men in the tech industry are bad guys. In my experience, it’s been quite the opposite. It’s also never been the case that I or most women have felt like targets of “sexual harassment” or “sexual discrimination” of the Lilly Ledbetter variety, in our workplaces. I’d actually label most of the guys I’ve worked with in Tech as pretty great—supportive, encouraging, and well rounded human beings in all-for-one, one-for-all environments.
At the tip of the iceberg is simply how to frame these conversations; they’re not about targeted, textbook sexism, however they are about a serious problem. Not a problem that any individual or corporation could (or should) be sued for, but one that is more passive, culturally engrained, and therefore perhaps in the most urgent need for us all—Men, Women, and GenderQueers alike—to hold hands and deliver a whomping, unified corrective bitchslap, against.
· · ·
When I was in school for Graphic Design, Leslie Becker spoke to this subject a few times. In all my years since, her point of view has remained as the most levelheaded, truth-telling, matter-of-factly oracle on the state of gender dynamics in most industries.
Paraphrasing Leslie, her schtick went something like this (with a deadpan, “I’m over 40 and over it,” no-agenda, facial expression): “Well, just look at the numbers: How many women are practicing graphic designers, versus men? We’re by far, a dominantly female industry. Then look at how you see our profession represented in the media, in awarded honors, in academic leadership positions, and as thought leaders in our industry—it’s overwhelmingly male. Why is that? I don’t know. I know it’s not because the men are jerks or nefarious, because women tend to be second-rate designers, or because there’s an ‘agenda’. It is something to keep in the back of your mind as you all move forward in your careers, though.”
Leslie spoke that truth to my class at CCAC, what feels like a lifetime ago.
· · ·
Fast-forward 3 career changes, many jobs, a few expensive hobbies, and several years later. Having for years considered pages upon pages of thoughtful discussion, assessment, debate, and general musings by so many wonderful (and ok, a few lousy) voices, I find the two questions that follow as stand-outs yet to be adequately answered:
1) Really, WHY is this such a big deal? Tangibly, truthfully, really. Appearances are just those, if you can’t get past them, this may not be the career path for you…
2) Kvetching and dissecting aside, what do you propose we do to solve for this problem? We’ve prioritized filling jobs & speaking engagements with the most dynamic and accomplished folks there are out there, period. Really. The women just aren’t there!
To make the most positive contribution to this discourse I’m just going to answer the above two questions, in this and a follow-up blog post. Really, I could out-do an edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica as published by Gloria Steinam, on blathering Patriarchy’s Cartesian dialectic manifested as Brotopia, from a mountaintop on high. It’s my opinion though that right now, we’ve gone blue in the face speaking to these problems in writing. Let’s keep having those conversations in meatspace, though in writing, it’s time to get moving. It’s time to change, and to make that change happen.
· · ·
So, Question One: Why are appearances such a big deal?
Speaking to my own experience in this world, as a child I worshiped Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. I opened-up each issue of Thrasher Magazine and surveyed the pages, wondering where the girl riders were. I found myself naturally seeking out female role-models in the visual landscape of our world, whom I could look to as immediate or long-standing inspiration for my own endeavors in life. The women I occasionally found were (very) few and far between. I still do the latter, and hope that I’ll always idolize Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman.
With many of us, we look into a crowd and visually survey it immediately, scanning to find other individuals who reflect a likeness of things we’ve identified as somehow fundamental to our identity in this world. A connection. As well, to measure difference. It’s a natural, human thing.
Most women I’ve spoken with on this subject, also do the same—most, without really thinking about it. People of color, short people, tall people, big people, little people, and everything in between. Molly Ringwald nervously walked down the school hallway in a John Hughes film—rarely does anyone over 18 really look like that (thank goodness) when surveying a crowd, but the perspective Hughes presented in 16 Candles—we all do it, all the time.
As an adult in in this world, when I don’t see women on a speaker panel or in a media article, I just kinda assume that it’s just the public-face that’s all male—that, really—there are likely women behind the scenes. We just don’t see them. I rationally know and accept that the industry is not filled with sexist conspirators against the advancement of women, etc. Likewise, that there simply aren’t many women entering or currently in our industry, relative to the guys. All true. But, also true and relevant and important for folks to cease ignoring: morale matters, and appearances contribute greatly to morale. Right or wrong, they do.
I ask all the guys in the house: walk into an everyday office (not VC or financial) filled with well coiffed men and women in nice suits—shirts buttoned high, nice silk ties on the men, hair neatly combed back, cuff-links on unrolled sleeves, women in modest pumps and also donning sport coats, nothing ‘cute’—and tell me that you’re not instantly uncomfortable.
That hoodie or startup-launch tee shirt you spot in the office (or crowd, etc) and breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing? To the ladies that’s how we see other women who represent technology products or are shown with tech teams in media pieces, on conference panels, and in roles at jobs that carry more influence and responsibility than the more support-centric roles of admin assistants, receptionists, project managers, HR, or customer service folks. Even an effort to buck the aforementioned paradigm with seeking out and considering more male hires for those roles, would be a welcome counter-normative gesture.
· · ·
Question Two: Ok, what do you propose we really do, then?
[dude’s name here] IS a frequently requested speaker, and [other dude’s name here] HAS honestly made some noteworthy and incredible contributions that folks want to hear about. People don’t care about who they don’t know, or projects too obscure to feel tangible.
Scout Addis wrote a note to me through Facebook this AM, presenting the “really, we’re nice guys, and that felt lousy and we want you to know we’re nice” case. It was a kind, polite, very human and good-hearted note. I wrote back with an honest apology, as causing offense and targeting individuals was not at all the intent of my inside-voice-blurted-aloud Tweet. In his note, Scout also presented some background information that to me, stood-out as perfect, common problem statements to respond to, with solution opportunities. Same shit we do with wireframes and product strategy, in striving to address user needs.
De-personalized, added-to from other sources, and answered as brief as my longwinded self can, below are what I feel to be some key universal “problems” that everyone in our industry faces, that we all have the time, bandwidth, and ability to affect change with. If you want to (channeling John & Yoko for good measure):
Q1. We don’t create our public image, the media does. We have no control over it.
A1. Actually, you have much more control over it than you probably realize. Make the effort, first—and ask as many questions along the way from folks who might know the answers, as with any project you’re vociferously committed to seeing succeed. If you don’t even make the effort, you’ve got no excuse.
Q2. We’re too busy building stuff to prioritize appearances with what little bandwidth is left.
A2. It’s not about add-ons, rather add-ins. And, it’s importance does merit that up-front investment of habit changing. Quit whining. Really, if you haven’t even tried, it’s just lazy whining.
Q3. Why pander to superficial values, anyway? Isn’t seeking to ‘hiring women’ just PC pandering?
A3. See notes above on re-considering how you shape your team’s environments. Then, read Mike Montiero’s article, here.
Q4. The women just aren’t there.
A4. There is a grain of truth in that, but that’s not stopping Etsy. It shouldn’t stop you from setting a better example for the next generation, as well. And, we are here… are you looking the right ways in the right places?
Q5. The women who are there, aren’t vocal or competitive enough—and we can’t help that.
A5. So the hyper-assertive, ultra driven, uber competitive culture of our day-to-day in tech, is NOT gendered? The preference to shine public visibility given to those who are the most aggressive self-promoters and with the tightest personal brands—not skills or accomplishments—is also not gendered?
I (and others before me) argue that the aforementioned attitudes very much are gendered. That parallel to what many other authors have suggested, one of our most pressing needs is to collectively step-back and re-evaluate today’s industry culture we’ve assimilated ourselves to. We’re not our parents, our grandparents, the polished denizens in episodes of Mad Men, or baking bundt-cakes in stilettos anymore. Nor should we seek to endeavor bra-burning, token trophies, or any lowering of standards to seemingly appease & present a mirage of inclusion. We’re more creative than that, have proven we can work harder than that, and that beyond a doubt, have the innovation-fu to blow the lid off anything deemed past its time.
Today is our time, and unlike our grandparents’ generation, we’re not afraid to shake things up to drive change. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations, to right now do just that.
· · ·
I’ll continue with expanded thoughts on the above action-items, with solution ramblings to go kick some butt with, in my Part 2 follow-up post. It will be published within a week (or so).
In the interim, some pieces that I found inspiring, in composing this article:
Dear Niece, On Your 8th Birthday (Open Letter to Future Women In Tech) by @bitchwhocodes
Whose Voice Do You Hear? Gender Issues & Success · danah boyd
Calling Forbes Out re: “Inclusivity Double Standard” · Lauren Bacon
How Etsy Grew Their Female Engineers by 500% In One Year · Brett Berson
· · ·
BROTOPIA IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT!