Several months ago, I was challenged with the idea of trying to do something to get more women involved in the local CRB (Columbus Ruby Brigade). I’m not really sure what to do. I don’t lead groups. I don’t recruit. I rarely even notice when I am the only woman in a group of people until someone else points it out to me. I was thinking: “hey, if it doesn’t matter to me then why does this matter at all?” So I oscillated between not knowing what to do, and not sure why it even mattered if it was done. But I thought that if I’d been encouraged to do something, I should at least investigate and attempt to come up with some ideas.
One way that I like to gather ideas is to talk to others, get opinions, see which opinions I like best, and expand on that. So I decided first to talk with Dianne Marsh at CodeMash 2008. I was told less than a year ago that I reminded someone of her, so I assumed we were probably somewhat alike in several ways, thus I figured talking to her might be a good place to start.
I have tried to sum up what was talked about on the subject at CodeMash, as well as interject some of my own thoughts. Summaries of CodeMash are changed to blue. My additional thoughts remain in black.
So, one evening at CodeMash, I introduced myself to Dianne, and as we spoke I posed the question: how would one go about getting more women involved in a local user group? One of her first answers was: why target women, why not just focus on increasing attendance in general? Yes, I thought, it seems we were on the same page going into the discussion. There was not a lot of time to talk then, so I went to one of the expert panel timeslots at CodeMash when I knew Dianne would be there and we could continue the conversation. Before talking about women specifically, one of the things we discussed was: what are some reasons that people don’t attend user groups in general? And we talked about what to do, and what not to do to gain people’s interest.
SPECULATION ABOUT WHY PEOPLE DON’T ATTEND USER GROUPS
Is it worthwhile?
One idea was that it is worthless if a user group that claims to be technical really isn’t. There’s so much to do, so much competing for our time, we have to pick what is worthwhile. In addition, evening and weekend events are difficult for women who have families. But that issue is more general than just to women now: men should have the same issues with that as women do. It is really more of a challenge for young families.
Dianne mentioned a study done at Carnegie Mellon University where people rate themselves first, followed by taking a skills assessment. The findings were that women usually rate themselves lower than the men, even when the skills assessment showed that person much more adept than the rating given to herself. So, perhaps women tend to be less comfortable because they lack some of the confidence that men typically have.
We’ve all heard that women tend to get paid less money for doing the same jobs as a man. I may not be too popular for saying this, but I feel in many situations this comes down to confidence. Men are more likely to ask for those raises, and seek those promotions, figuring the worst they will probably hear is “no.” Ask and you shall receive, and conversely if you don’t ask you may not receive. A tightfisted employer will give smaller raises, if at all, to those who do not make noise about it. Not all employers are like that, but those who are that way bring down the averages for those demographics who don’t ask – which I think are more likely the women.
Do a lot of women experience sexism in groups of men? I don’t feel like I, personally, have experienced all that much sexism in my life. Am I just lucky? I can’t say I have never experienced it, but not very much.
* There was the CS professor I had in my introductory programming classes in college. Having barely known how to use a computer upon entering college, I often felt I had a lot of catching up to do, and went to the professor’s office hours probably more than the average student. Yet I’ll never forget the time I was having particular trouble with one assignment. I was in my professor’s office on a Friday afternoon. After answering the questions I had at that time, he said that if I had more problems over the weekend, his wife would not be home all weekend, so I could call him at home. And he gave me his home phone number. I’m pretty sure I stopped going to his office hours after that, and must have muddled through any trouble I had with my assignments after that on my own.
* Then there was my database professor in college. My friend’s roommate Jeremy and I were both in this class. We lived in nearby apartments so we studied together a lot, and would arrange to go to the teacher’s office hours together a lot when we had the same questions. I can recall several occasions where the professor would specifically and very blatantly make eye contact with Jeremy and not even glance at me when periodically asking “does that make sense?” I felt that if I didn’t understand I had to interrupt in order to say so, and even then I felt like I was inconveniencing the professor to ask any questions at all. He didn’t seem to mind when Jeremy asked for clarification. I don’t know if it makes a difference in his attitude that this professor was older, probably a couple of years away from retirement at the time. But it’s a theory.
Other than that, I can’t recall any blatant sexism, or times when I have felt really uncomfortable that I’ve encountered. And I don’t really understand feeling uncomfortable being the only woman in a group. I guess I see it as something that bothered me when I was younger the same way a lot of things bother you as a kid and you grow out of it. Feeling “different” is a much bigger deal as kids than it is to most of us as adults, I believe.
Do people feel comfortable?
Maybe it is more of a problem of comfort level. When you go somewhere new, whether it’s a party, playing on an recreational sports team, church, a user group, or anywhere where there’s a group of people, it’s much more intimidating if you don’t know anyone else who will be there. So, add to that another level of unknown: not knowing the demographics of the group – whether it’s not knowing if you’ll be the only “nuby,” the only female, the only anything – that can make it that much more scary.
I can recall occasions in my younger years (elementary school or junior high) where some event was going on, and I would check with female friends of mine to make sure that I wasn’t going to be the only girl in attendance, or participating in a particular event. That’s not a concern of mine anymore. It doesn’t bother me at all, now. Yet, in the last year I have had female friends of mine on occasion ask me if I was going to attend some event because they did not want to be the only woman. And when they did this, it caught me off guard a bit, and surprised me that it even mattered to an adult whether she was going to be the only woman in a group. Perhaps in my field of work, where I am usually surrounded by more men than women on a daily basis, I have gotten so used to it that I forget what it’s like for it to matter whether I’m the only woman around or not.
Can I think of any times when I have felt uncomfortable?
The only time I ever feel like I don’t fit in with a group of men, is when I’m in a group where everybody is trying to talk at once, and the only way to get a word in seems to be to interrupt others who are speaking. Yet, in general when I am speaking and get interrupted, I feel like it is because people didn’t really want to hear what I had to say. So I make it a point not to interrupt people since I really hate being interrupted and feeling like what I am saying is not important. And as a result of not interrupting, I’ve noticed that sometimes my point of view does not get heard at all. More recently, I have found ways around this. For example, if I feed my opinion to someone with more of a voice in the group, and do that after the fact in a one-on-one situation, often this will get my opinion shared with the group through someone else eventually. Maybe I don’t “get credit” if it is a good idea, but that’s only bothersome if I care enough about getting credit for the idea. If the goal is for the good of the team, it doesn’t matter who speaks the idea as long as it gets said. Even though there are days when it feels like men interrupt conversations more than women do, truly it is not always men who interrupt, though. While some men are more likely to interrupt than others, so are some women more likely to interrupt than others. Likewise, I know many men who don’t make a habit of interrupting others.
What makes me more comfortable?
I think that sometimes, for whatever reason, people have lower expectations of me. And here’s my secret: sometimes I think I contribute to that on purpose. If a group of people are having a conversation, and see a quiet woman sitting there observing and not saying very much at first, I think that can lower expectations: expectations of what a person will contribute, expectations about their intelligence, and expectations about their competence.
It’s really easy to judge a book by it’s cover. No offense to you guys, but think about this: if a guy told you he wanted to decorate your house, you probably would not expect the decorating to turn out all that great. However, I know there are guys who do have a good eye for decorating. But, with your expectations that most guys don’t much interest or experience in decorating, if the guy decorated your house it would be easy for him to exceed your expectations even if the decorating was just “OK,” would it not?
Oddly enough, sometimes low expectations make me feel more comfortable. This is because if expectations are low, then I’m more likely to meet or exceed those expectations. Oh sure, sometimes it backfires if someone cannot or will not shed first impressions. But I am typically a lot more comfortable in situations where I feel I have a chance at exceeding expectations, than ones where I feel like I’ve been oversold and I’m likely to disappoint.
WHY DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER
Back at CodeMash, just to spur discussion, I posed the questions: What is the problem with lack of women in IT, or at user groups anyway? Why do we care? People are interested in what they’re interested in, and if they’re not interested in something then why force it? And what about other minorities? For example, I think I only saw about 3 African-Americans at CodeMash. There were a lot more than 3 women.
Some of the answers I got were thought provoking. Things like:
It’s not really a problem as long as there’s not a false barrier to entry, or decision not to be interested is based on false information.
Enrollment of women in CS has dropped since the mid 80’s. This is proportionately, not just based on general enrollment in CS rising or dropping. Dianne mentioned that she has gone to speak at high schools before, and that high school girls are often surprised by women in IT. They are often surprised by her because she does not fit the stereotypical “computer geek” profile in many ways.
Or perhaps just offering programs which introduce women to IT, Math and Science fields early in high-school, in a more relaxed environment would do wonders for spreading knowledge about the industries and dispelling commonly-held myths that women “aren’t suited” to work in those fields.
Diversity in the IT community helps everyone. That’s why we care. Our products have a lot of potential to be better if we have more diverse thoughts ideas brought to the table, that can only be produced by having different people and new ideas involved in the process.
WHO’S DOING IT CORRECTLY NOW? WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALL THIS?
One observation made in the CodeMash group was that there seems to be a higher female attendance at CodeMash than there is in general in IT. He was right, it’s true. One thought on that was that some of the people you see at CodeMash are recruiters, and recruiting has a slightly higher female population than IT. However, that doesn’t really account for all of the women that we saw. In fact, I don’t think we had any real solid conclusions as to why this observation was true.
Another point made was that there does not seem to be nearly the gender bias in India that we have in the US. We spent time questioning whether the Western societal stigmas about women in IT were a contributing factor to fewer women being in IT than, say, India. Or, whether there was a bias in the higher education systems (like colleges), or even lower education systems (high school and lower) in the US, and whether such biases prod women into non-IT/Math fields.
Another thought was that maybe more of a role-model approach is necessary. As mentioned above, Dianne said she has spoken at high schools. She said that she feels it is important to talk to kids in high school or even younger to try to fight stereotypes and misconceptions about IT that might diminish interest in technical fields. For example, you can promote that your job isn’t just about sitting in a cubicle all day coding, and never talking or interacting with other people.
Dianne posed the question: “who influenced you?” I didn’t really get a chance to think about or answer this question at the time, but I spent some time thinking about that later on. For me, it was partly my mom pointing out to me that when my younger brother and I played together as kids, he was the idea person and I was the how-to person. He would figure out what we would do or make, and I would figure out what materials we needed and steps we needed to take to accomplish his idea. My mom pointing this out to me helped inspire me to consider engineering-type fields. Among other things, unfriendly software for course registration in college helped inspire me to consider writing software myself. And co-workers at the computer lab help desk where I worked in college, who would talk down to others that were not at the same level as they were, inspired me to learn what I could and try to help newer people learn what I had learned, but do so in a much more friendly way.
So how can we possibly increase attendance at user group meetings? Some ideas….
Make it worth people’s while.
Make people feel comfortable. Maybe I can find ways to show people that there are women who are already involved in the group. Whether that’s to try to post to the mailing list more often, or start writing a technical blog (which is the basis of what inspired the blog you’re reading now!) Or just make an effort to talk to and get to know newer people who show up for the first time, even when I’d rather be talking to people I already know and haven’t seen for a month.
Try to maintain a diverse group so others are less likely to be the only woman, or the only anything.
Role models. If you’re excited and passionate about being there, it’s a contagious attitude. Feel comfortable. Have confidence. Find your voice.