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Women in tech, the workplace, society, etc . . .
buzzed, B&W
hairylunch
I went to a Meetup earlier this week titled Successful Women in Software Industry. Lots of thoughts, biases, etc, so trying to sort some of it out by writing, digesting, processing, etc.

I wasn't sure about going to this particular Meetup, as my previous experience with the group had been a bit of a wash - some semi-interesting technical stuff, but not a ton of value in terms of networking. I was also feeling a bit blah, so wasn't looking forward to biking across the bridge in the rain, but I'm glad I made myself go. I didn't network (nor did I attempt to), but the panel discussion was really interesting.

I remember the panelists introducing themselves:

  • Alice Nodelman - a hard-core dev, traditional CS degree, etc, hacking away at automation tools to help folks

  • Megan Bigelow - customer support manager

  • Leah Silber - CEO/Co-Founder of a small tech consultancy and an event organizer

  • Myllisa Patterson - Marketing director

As the introductions were winding down, I remember thinking that it was disappointing that there were more "real tech" folks up front, but then thinking that this really was a crazy bias. While it wasn't gender related, but software industry related, there's a definite stereotype that developers are the pinnacle of the tech community. Kind of a weird bias for me to acknowledge, especially as often as I spout how the non-profit sector needs to learn that their work is business as much as any other. Tech isn't that different - while the devs may generate some code, turning that into a real product, selling it, supporting it, etc is still business. This was the first churning in my mind that business is business, and that the story of women in tech is really just a subset of women in the workplace (and likely not that specialized of a subset).

Nodelman was the most interesting panelist to me - she shared a few anecdotes that resonated. The first was that she's had to make some rules for herself, one of them being never to drink with co-workers. Definitely a sign of a problem that she's mentioning this as advice for others, and this really felt like advice that's along the same lines as not wearing short skirts or showing cleavage, i.e. the idea of teaching women how to avoid bad situations, rather than addressing the creation of these situations.

The second point that resonated was that she was talking about how she has a partner and a 4-year old, and the experiences around being a parent. How co-workers would ask how she was planning on being a mother, what she planned on doing, etc, none of which would have been asked for male counterparts.

She also mentioned the idea of medicine and the law being examples of where these gaps had closed, though that doesn't feel right to me. The number of women in the demanding positions (mainly in terms of time), e.g. surgeons, law partners, etc is still abysmal.

She went on to talk about how she's not a fan of these types of events, that she's frustrated that she's not seeing change, and she feels she has more impact mentoring and tutoring with Code Oregon than being a role-model. Silber also touched on the idea of role-models, that for conferences she organizes, she tries to balance the speakers, that it takes effort to find them.

I got more frustrated as Bigelow discussed the networking group she co-founded, PDX Women in Tech, and other were talking about mentoring, networking, etc, talking about how there's a confidence gap, that women are reluctant to apply for positions they're not skilled in (on paper). Silber told an anecdote about how she's struggled to not cry at meetings (and the counter-example of a powerful male she heard of who was a crier).

The message I kept hearing was that women had to adapt, that they had to become more professional, but that professional really meant more like stereo-typically male - confident, aggressive, willing to work the long hours, etc. The long hours bit definitely reminded me of The True Story of the Gender Pay Gap from the Freakonomics podcast, where one of the big takeaways for me was that a large factor in the pay gap was that women value "temporal flexibility" (i.e. the freedom to work from home, take time off to take care of children, flex hours, etc) and the "care penalty":

If you take women who don’t have caregiving obligations, they’re almost equal with men. It’s somewhere in the 95 percent range. But when women then have children, or again are caring for their own parents or other sick family members who need care, then they need to work differently. They need to work flexibly, and often go part-time. They often get less-good assignments because their bosses think that they’re not going to want work that allows them to travel, or they’re not going to be able to stay up all night, or whatever it is. And so then you start — if you’re working part-time, you don’t get the same raises. And if you’re working flexibly your boss very typically thinks that you’re not that committed to your career, so you don’t get promoted.

This, along with Nodelman's anecdote how she got a nanny, had to negotiate with her partner what the parenting responsibilities woud be, to take more of a traditional bread-winner/working-man type role, really seemed to me to suggest that the approach to women in tech that I'm familiar with is short-sighted. The idea of getting more women into STEM, into creating pipelines of women, etc, doesn't address the real issue, that our culture values folks who put work ahead of family and outside obligations.

It seems to me that if we really want more gender-equity in the workplace, it's more about shifting our culture around work. Sexism is a tiny portion of the obstacles keeping women out of the workplace.

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