Supporting Feminism in Technology – Part 1

May 4, 2013 / By Laine Campbell

I’ve been contemplating the topic of feminism and misogyny in the technology field a lot of late.  This blog post is a culmination of a significant amount of thought and reflection on the topic of women in technology.  At Palomino, I focus a lot on the values around bringing underserved populations into technology.  Women, people from working class or impoverished backgrounds, people who are gay and lesbian or transgendered, and people of latino and african american backgrounds are traditionally highly underrepresented in the US technological workforce.  Palomino, even being a woman owned business, is not exempt15 from this issue.  One of my goals is to build up not just Palomino’s DBA and engineer population to reflect higher percentages of these populations, but to support more people in the entire community in having these opportunities.  I’d like to focus on gender in this conversation, though I have much to say on the topics of race and class as well.  In fact, they are all interrelated.
To dig into the topic, one of the first things to consider and that people ask, is why is this a big deal.  And at the top level, without any time put into consideration, I can see why someone might feel this way.  After all, if a DBA is good, why does their gender, race or background matter?  And, if you are simply considering the output of an individual or organization, this is pretty true.  But, there is more.  My hope is that people who focus on the importance of open source software and free access to technology would understand the importance of building larger populations of women engineers and administrators, but that has proven itself to not be true.
The fact is, that on a macro level, one of the largest ways to get more people from underserved populations into jobs such as database administration, infrastructure architecture and software engineering is to provide them with mentors and role models who have already broken through the barriers to make it.  And, we do exist.  Palomino and Blue Gecko were both built by women.  Oracle’s Ace and Ace Director list has about 12 (of 390) women on it.  I have been meeting more people of color and women working on senior teams of clients.  I do see potential role models and mentors out there.  But, don’t get too excited.  There are still plenty of  opportunities for improving how we build welcoming workplaces for the talented and diverse engineers already out there making their way in the field.  
There’s also the selfish part of the equation.  More often than not, when I find women and people of color in the wild, with successful records as engineers and operators, they tend to be extremely good at their jobs.  They tend to be excellent communicators, good with clients, detailed with project planning and highly technically competent.  Is this because of more innate talent?  No.  It is because the amount of willpower, inner strength, self-confidence and chutzpah required to succeed for these people is much higher than the predominant demographic of engineers.
1. Mindfulness in Language and Communication – I find this is particularly true in remote workforces, such as Palomino where the entire culture is often built about word choice and expression of ideas.  There are obvious cases, such as how often people start email threads with “Gentlemen”.  Then, there is simply the propagation of cultures around masculinity, or “brogramming”.  This is more delicate.  After all, there are plenty of women, myself included, who enjoy conversations around traditionally masculine pursuits and endeavors.  I lean more towards not an exclusion of topic, but an inclusion and mindfulness of those who might feel left out.  Do you ask women about their favorite sports teams?  Do you keep an eye out for folks who might retreat from certain topics and adjust your conversations accordingly?  Shutting off social conversation is not generally helpful, but as leaders in organizations, it is a responsibility to help guide conversations to be as inclusive and supportive as possible to all staff.  And of course, any traditionally sexist, racist or classist conversations need to be privately nipped in the bud immediately as a manner of course.  Creating space for other conversations outside of traditionally masculine ones to occur is also critical.  Ask people who are not from the dominant race/class/gender in your organization about their weekends and pastimes.  Don’t assume a woman is interested in knitting, but give her a chance to express what she likes.  She might surprise you and your team with the diverse range of interests that might be brought up.
2. Examine the Gendered Roles and Behaviors – Go to most tech sites and look at their team pages.  I’m willing to bet that if you are looking at client facing positions that require emotional intelligence and empathy, you will find more women than in the technical fields.  Palomino is no exception.  Our project and account management teams are all female.  Our office manager is male, however.  Ultimately, I don’t recommend the policing of the gender of individual roles, but I do believe it’s important to examine key expectations and behaviors around staff.  For instance, it is common practice to assume engineers and administrators do not have the emotional/social capacity to interact with users/clients.  So, organizations put account managers or project managers in between, who are often female and thus considered more socially and emotionally adept.  Rarely is it considered a priority to encourage the technical staff to step up, improve their soft skills such as empathy and to interact directly with the client base.  Instead, we build a culture of mothering, which is harmful to all parties involved.
Additionally, do we value the roles that are more empathetic, client facing and emotionally intelligent?  People always discuss how hard it is to retain and find good DBAs, and their salaries, power and “catering to” reflect this in the organization.  While a good PM may not be as hard to find, they are still just as valuable to an organization.  Do you take these roles for granted, or do you also make them feel as important, valued and encouraged as your more technical staff?  Do you let mediation fall to these same people, or do you encourage all staff to develop their skills in negotiation and conflict resolution?  
3. The Devil is in the Details – At the recent Percona Live conference, T-Shirts were given to all attendees.  When asked if there were women’s sizes, the organizers stated they were unisex.  Unisex is not actually unisex.  It is men’s, and not designed for women’s bodies.  These details, while not large individually, add up to a feeling of being an add on; just as much as lack of kosher meals, or wheelchair ramps far from the main entrance can cause one to feel like an afterthought.   Take the extra step to define and socialize your diversity policy and your code of conduct.  O’Reilly has a great code of conduct at http://oreilly.com/conferences/code-of-conduct.html.  Note, that defining the code of conduct or the diversity policy is not enough.  You need to talk to people about these things and engage them.  When you are discussing policies around employees, or evaluating a new client, think about how this fits in to your policies.  When you are planning a company offsite, organizing a conference or writing a blog post, think about these policies.  Who will be involved or affected by your choices?  What can you do to make them feel more included?  Take the time to really think about this.
4. Recruiting – This is a challenging position, and one that I’ve had to consider for quite some time.  At Palomino, I’d say we get perhaps 1 out of 20 applicants who are women via our natural model of letting people come to us via word of mouth.  That is obviously a horrible ratio.  Too often, people just say “well, if women don’t interview how can we hire them?”.  That’s a cop out.  Most hiring managers know that you don’t get A players from a passive recruiting strategy.  This is just as true for getting women to interview for technical positions.  You need to spend time going to events such as the ADA Initiative Unconference (http://sf.adacamp.org), Women Powering Technology Summit (http://www.witi.com) and sponsoring, speaking and getting involved.  There are numerous meetups, from Girls who Code in NYC, Girls in Tech in Las Vegas and Women in Tech in SF.  Additionally, you should be going through LinkedIn to find women and contacting them.  Even if they are not interested, by building a network that includes more and more women, you are improving the possibility that you will find the right women for your organization.  Get out there and speak at meetups, start some introductory courses for women coming out of college and continue to build that network.  There is no reason to stay at a 5% rate of interviews, but you have to work!
This is part 1 in 2 parts.  I’d like to focus next on some ways in which dialogue around the conversations can go wrong, and how to discuss and respond to conversations around feminism and misogyny in a constructive manner.  I do look forward to feedback and conversations around the topic, and I thank you for your time in reading and considering this.

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