RubyConf 2010, keynotes, and maihem. Oh my!

It’s now a little over a month after RubyConf 2010, but I still want to finish and publish a blog post that I started right after getting back from RubyConf about some of the keynote talks and some of my experiences and thoughts.


Whenever I go to a tech conference, I’m often in the minority as one of few women at the conference. And inevitably a few people are interested in hearing my thoughts and opinions about being one of few women at the conference, and in IT in general. It’s not one of my favorite topics, but I appreciate people’s interest in talking to me, so I indulge.

After a collection of conversations at RubyConf, and some mini-controversy on Twitter following RubyConf (seriously, can’t Rubyists have a conference without some level of controversial aftershock?) regarding David Heinemeier Hansson’s keynote, I really feel like I’m no longer qualified to give opinions on women in technology, and maybe I never was. I start to feel like a freak among women. I *liked* David’s talk. I even went up to him later that day and told him so. But now I feel like I’m “supposed” to be offended in some way. I just don’t seem to have the same opinions about things as most women. Not only am I a minority at the conferences I attend, I am a minority among the minority. I never did really fit in much of anywhere.

Diversity is a great thing. But I never understand why people make such a big deal about women in technology when I rarely (if ever) hear people talk about small numbers of African American’s in technology, about Jewish people in tech, you name it. (Though to his credit, Dave Thomas did briefly include that topic in his talk. [DT 39:40] More on his talk later.) I just don’t think much about whether I’m one of few women around or not. I guess I just try to see something positive wherever I’m at, and whatever I’m doing; so if being one of few women around is “supposed” to be bad, I just don’t see it that way. If that’s how I’m supposed to feel, then I start to wonder if I’m just not good at being a woman. I don’t feel that way all the time. But sometimes being singled out for being different makes me feel worse.

Dave Thomas started off RubyConf with an inspiring keynote recapping his last 10 years in Ruby, and offering 3 challenges to the audience (inspire someone, diversify, get out of the rut.) Challenge 1 [DT 33:03] started off with a comparison of the percentage of women in the workforce (47%) vs. women in computing/math (25%), vs. women at RubyConf (5.6%), vs. women in open source (1.5%). Then he talked mostly about how the community can inspire women and avoid discriminatory behavior, some of which “you don’t always know you’re doing….” [DT 39:08] On one hand I admire a speaker addressing a topic he feels is an issue. And while I have mixed feelings on the subject, I don’t disagree that there’s an issue. On the other hand, as soon as he brought up the subject of women, I knew that was about all people would want to talk about with me the rest of the day (which I kind of dreaded). And that’s pretty much how my next couple of days went.

“How did you push through?” they asked.

I never really felt like I had to push through much of anything to enter IT. If there was any barrier to entry in any subset of IT, it might have been into the Ruby community. For one, it feels awkward going to a Ruby meeting with a Windows machine. And I don’t think we should make people feel that way. You shouldn’t have to buy a Mac before you attend your first Ruby meeting, nor worry about people telling you to “get a real machine.” I think it’s a bit much to expect people to spend the money on a Mac (about twice as much money as equivalent non-Mac hardware whenever I’ve priced it out) just to do Ruby. Not that I have any problem with Macs either. But I do like my Window 7. By choice. And I’m really scared to say that. On my blog. I shouldn’t be, but I am. At RubyConf, during one of the conversations I had where someone asked me about Women in IT, I mentioned this fear. And in an indirect way, the person basically called me an idiot for that choice. Backpedaling… “ummm,” he says… “it’s just that most of the people I’ve met that ‘choose’ windows are idiots.” Thanks dude. That felt great </sarcasm>.  But I’m trying not to be ashamed of who I am anymore.

David Heinemeier Hansson gave his keynote on the 2nd morning of RubyConf. His talk, titled “Why Ruby?” was about what he loves so much about Ruby, and why he hasn’t felt a need to look at another programming language in many years. He talked about the freedom that Ruby gives you over statically-typed languages such as Java or C#. Within that freedom, some acts are harmless, and others are much worse, but freedom should be used with appropriate moderation. [DHH 49:00] And he dropped 3 F-bombs. And he talked about having one’s balls fondled by the TSA. [DHH 40:30-40:47]

Some people said these things were “distracting” or did not add value to his talk. While I wouldn’t get up in front of a group and talk that way, (I also wouldn’t get up in front of a group and talk) if he wants to get up and talk that way, that’s his choice. At this point in his career, he doesn’t really have to worry whether or not people think he’s unprofessional when he gets up and talks. But was anything in his talk something that you wouldn’t see or hear in an R-rated movie? No. Was it distracting? I don’t think so. 3 F-bombs. And the majority of the ball fondling discussion lasted only 17 seconds, not counting 1 fleeting side remark referencing back to it later on [DHH 41:41], for a total of about 19 seconds. Is 19 seconds, out of an hour-long talk, really a distraction to someone? If anything I thought it was funny. And funny holds my attention a lot longer than most standard talks. When he expressed this disgust at recent TSA practices and as he put it, having one’s balls fondled, I wanted to turn to the person beside me and say “Yeah, I hate when the TSA fondles my balls!” If I’d been less tired, I probably would have said that. But people were fired up against his talk anyway. I guess you can’t really convince people who are fired up over something to settle down. And I’m simply not qualified to say if people are over-reacting or not. I’m not qualified to say whether women (in general) are uncomfortable about this stuff, or offended. I just don’t know. It’s up to individuals to form their own opinions.

I do know it’s up the mature ones who can handle the freedom to lead by example, whatever that means to them. To me, it means not dwelling on little things people say, but rather try to step back see the big picture of what message someone is trying to get across and take it for what it is. I know, that’s really tough sometimes. People get offended at things. It’s hard not to take something too personally sometimes. And I think anyone trying to effectively get their message across needs to be considerate of that. We’re all free to say what we want, and speak to people however we want. But just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. (Just like we’re all free to write complex logic in one convoluted line of Ruby code, just to be proud to say you did something in only one line. Clever, but it doesn’t mean you should do that. Can someone else easily understand what it does? I think readability is more important than cleverness. But some people will do that anyway. I can lead by example there too. At the end of the day, I have to figure out what they were trying to do and move on. I digress. 🙂

Dave Thomas, when talking about ways the community may exclude women, he said “The exclusion happens among people who often do not mean to appear, and do not interpret their own actions, as hostile to women.” [DT 36:50] That is probably true. Though I think there’s a lot of actions are hostile in many ways, not to women specifically. For example, unintentional hostility against people with less confidence.

“Why’d you do it THAT way?”

Perhaps they just asked the question because they want to see where the person’s coming from. Maybe they like to question decisions in order to spawn discussion. Maybe they like to challenge and argue and see where it goes. Depending on tone of voice, “Why’d you do it THAT way?” can easily imply “That was a dumb way to do it.” instead. And the person with low confidence takes it further to mean “YOU are dumb.” Are you aware of this? But sometimes people with low confidence have great ideas, too! Are we missing out on those? Are we including them? Or are we pushing THEM away?

Dave Thomas also said “if you do find something offensive… do something about it. If you’re in a talk and it’s offensive, stand up and get out. Or blog about it… tweet the guy into oblivion…. by reacting, you’re saying ‘yeah it happened, but you know what? We’re not going to let it happen again.'” [DT 40:12] Not bad advice! Yet just because you can do these things doesn’t necessarily mean you should. For one thing, you can’t please everyone all the time. Chances are someone will not like something that any speaker has to say. Be careful to use this kind of power of persuasion when it’s really important, not on every little thing. Else it becomes meaningless. It becomes “oh yeah, there go those rubyists again, always someone pissed off at the end of the conference.” May we all have the wisdom to discern the important from the trivial.

But as for the male/female ratio thing, I think it goes deeper than being less “inflammatory” [DT 37:40] in order to not deter women. How do you think it makes a person feel to hear someone who’s trying to have kids say “I hope we don’t have a girl,” or to hear someone say “can you imagine him trying to raise a *girl*? Oh my!” Are girls really that much more trouble? Maybe we are. Maybe it makes us feel like we’re not worth the trouble. It makes me feel like I’m not worth the trouble. I think people (not women, but anyone) with lower self-esteem have a harder time convincing themselves that they can do something that’s “supposed” to be hard, like Math, Science, Computers. What have the experiences in your life taught you about what you can and can’t do? What opinions have the years of your life helped you form? For me, I’ve “learned” (note I put “learned” in quotes):

* that having daughters is a bad thing,

* that most of what women do is annoying and excessive (shopping, talking too much, taking too long to get ready, over-packing for a trip),

* that all wives are good for is nagging and telling their husbands what they can and cannot do. I’m exaggerating mostly (however, I did see someone tweet recently “I don’t have an opinion, I have a wife.” That’s a horrible way to have to feel in life. And if women are to blame for that, then yes, I do feel bad.)

These are thoughts I have to consciously put out of my head when I’m feeling down. It’s really hard sometimes.

So what now? If I’m offended by one little keynote speech, I can leave that talk. I could stop attending community events. I can still code in Ruby and Rails and not be a part of the community at all. But I lose out. I lose out on other people’s passion, their knowledge, their ideas. But I’m not offended by much. I liked Dave Thomas’s talk, AND I liked David Heinemeier Hansson’s talk. I particularly liked his analogy with rope. “People say things like ‘…just enough rope to hang himself’ but does that mean we should outlaw rope? You shouldn’t be allowed to have rope, because what if you hung yourself? Is that the main use case for rope? … you can do a lot of things with rope.” [DHH 37:30]

I don’t have to condone all the individual choices people make [DHH 56:20]; We don’t all have the same sense of humor but we can still get along [DHH 34:00]. Can’t we all just get along? [Rodney King :)]

I don’t know the first thing about why there’s not more women in IT. I don’t have any clue what to do about it. Sometimes I wonder why it’s really a “problem.” If women aren’t interested in it, why force it? There’s lots of opinions on that. But I think the best thing to do is make anyone interested in IT feel welcome; instead of singling out people who represent some statistical group, just treat them like they belong in the group. I really liked Dave Thomas’ challenge to inspire someone, and his suggestion that we need to be talking more to kids and inspiring them about software development. [DT 41:05] (Kids. Not girls, not boys. Kids.) “Fewer and fewer people are entering software as a profession…. Mentoring is a really important part of what we do. [41:16] And that I agree with. I’ve had plenty of mentors over my career, and giving back by mentoring others makes a lot of sense. “Go inspire someone” is something that I can do. Can you?

References:

Video of David Heinemeier Hansson’s RubyConf Keynote (DHH* http://confreaks.net/videos/431-rubyconf2010-keynote-why-ruby)

Video of Dave Thomas’ RubyConf Keynote (DT* http://confreaks.net/videos/368-rubyconf2010-keynote)

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Ada Lovelace Day

While I didn’t officially “pledge” for this (bah), I thought I’d throw something out there for Ada Lovelace Day 2009 – March 24, and write about a woman in technology whom I admire.

When I first thought about participating in this, I had some severe writers block.  I just couldn’t think what or who I wanted to write about.  And as I reflected on why this was so tough, it occurred to me that most of that came from a thought that goes something like:

“dangit, people, why aren’t we writing about about inspiring people in technology.  What about people who inspired my career?  Why does it matter if it’s a woman?  I guess I just don’t get it.

I, for one, want to be defined by – I want to be remembered as – many things, but not necessary because I am a woman.  Rather because I am a good developer.  Because I am intelligent.  Because I am a nice person.  Because I am a person who can figure things out.  Because I am a person who helps others figure things out.  Because I have good ideas.  But not because I am woman.

Then, a person came to mind: the first woman programmer I ever worked alongside: Clar-René Sliper.  I was a little, junior co-op, still in college.  She was one of the senior members of our group.  Aside from me, she was the only female programmer there.  (There were other women around, just not programmers.)

I remember wondering how she got into IT.  After all, there were so few women in my college classes.  I can imagine that finding women in the field was even more rare when she got into IT.  Yet whenever she was around, it just never seemed like – nobody acted like – she was any different than anyone else on the team.  She was smart, I never saw her ideas ignored, she never got walked all over or had to put up with crap from anyone.  And she never had to put forth any attitude to get that respect.  The only difference was her name was Clar instead of Jim or Liem or André or Dean or Matt or Dave.

It’s not unusual for people’s first experiences with things to shape them going forward.  Maybe those early experiences paved the whole way for me thinking: “People – this is not a big deal. Quit making it one.  Singling people out only makes it worse.”  You should admire anyone around you who deserves it.  Man, woman, white, black, Asian, disabled, etc.  Appreciate anyone around you who deserves it.  And treat everyone around you with at least a basic level of respect, no matter what.

I appreciate Clar for unwittingly showing me that it is not that hard, or weird, to be as competent and capable as everyone else around me.

The Invisible Bear Trap

I was reading something recently that was making a point that angry women are frightening to men. Way more than angry men frighten men. Ironically, the very next day I was having lunch with a couple of male co-workers, and one of them made a very similar statement. I can’t recall exactly how it came up. But what interesting timing!

I was still mulling over what I’d read in my head, so this spurred me to ask some questions to get the opinions of the guys at lunch.

Why do you think that is?
One of them said that growing up, he was used to his dad yelling at him all the time, like if he was doing something he shouldn’t be. His dad would yell, it was short, then it was done. On the other hand his mom didn’t yell much at all. But when she did, she was REALLY mad. So her version of angry was a lot worse than his dad’s.

The other one calls this “the invisible bear trap”: when he has no idea his wife is mad, and then out of the blue she bites off his head like this invisible bear trap that comes out of nowhere.

Women don’t want to seen as “bitchy.” And we hate when we’re having a bad day because of any number of reasons, and get written off as having PMS or something (As if guys never have bad, frustrating days that have nothing to do with biological causes? Come on! 🙂 ) And I’ve seen women in leadership roles who forge through barriers to get things done, and get labeled a “bitch” for doing so. I’ve seen guys have to do that same (or worse) kind of forging through roadblocks, and not get called any kinds of bad names behind their back. Sometimes, to avoid such accusations and labels, a lot of women will try to be “nice” and “quiet” instead, and just go-along with things. But by not talking about issues and playing nice, things build up, sometimes to a boiling point. And that’s where the invisible bear trap comes from. All from just trying to be nice and “ladylike.”

Agression vs. Assertion
The most logical solution would be to not bottle things up, and assert one self when needed. The problem with this is that the line between agression and assertion is blurred.

Aggressive, adj. (from dictionary.com):
* boldly assertive and forward; pushy
* Inclined to behave in an actively hostile fashion
* Assertive, bold, and energetic

Assertive, adj. (from dictionary.com):
* confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive: aggressive; dogmatic
* Inclined to bold or confident assertion; aggressively self-assured

Notice how some of the definitions for “Agressive” use the word “Assertive” in the definition. Likewise the definitions for Assertive use the term “Agressive” in the definition. No wonder this line is blurred! Look closer at the differences and you will see the definition for “Agressive” containes the word “Hostile”, while “Assertive” contains the word “positive.”

People should strive to be assertive, not agressive; positive not hostile. But I’ve definitely seen assertive women get bad-mouthed for being agressive or argumentative. Not as often do I hear men badmouthed for assertive or argumentative behavior. Yet, I’ve heard men get praised for argumentative, “won’t take crap from anyone” behavior.

Are you more afraid of a women getting angry at you, vs. a man getting angry at you?
The consensus of the lunch group was yes. Nobody likes anyone to be angry with them. But the guys said that the thought of a man getting angry was a lot easier to take than a woman getting angry.

For comparison, I asked one of my female friends the same question. For her, it’s equally scary no matter who is angry. I agree with her, absolutely hate for anyone to be angry with me! Although I might slightly fear a man’s anger more than a woman’s. A man is typically louder, for one thing. I fear louder women, too. But, while it’s a generalization, men are typically stronger physically than women, and if verbal changed to a physical fight the woman doesn’t stand a chance. (NOTE: I am NOT saying that I’ve ever feared physical violence in the workplace! I am only saying the thought that *if* it did, there’s no equal ground, can subconsciously cross the mind. And if that might cross my mind, imagine the mind of someone else who grew up facing physical violence in the home!) These thoughts aren’t usually a factor, not until an argument gets heated or the more assertive ones are talking so much I can’t get a word in.

In addition, one of the guys at lunch added that he’s not only more afraid of woman’s anger than a man’s. But also he is more afraid of getting angry TOWARD a woman than toward another man.

So if women don’t speak up so they don’t come across agressive, and men are afraid to voice their anger toward a women, then aren’t men and women BOTH bottling things up in relation to each other?

That can’t be healthy. Doing the same thing, because they’re afraid of each other? Where does this come from? Fear of how they will react?

The unknown is always fearful. Maybe people feel like they can more accurately gauge how someone of the same gender will react to something. But if you don’t know how, or why, the other person will react, it’s scarier for sure. For the most part I can probably gauge a woman’s behavior more accurately than a man’s, because I can understand better some of the reasons behind the behavior. This may more likely be a cross-gender misunderstanding, but there’s always exceptions to the rule. I can think of female people I’ve known in the past who I could never gauge what was going to tick them off. We were just coming at the world from opposite corners of the universe. I found it easier to just keep my distance from them and speak up as little as possible around them.

Bear trap example
What about times when I want to or need to speak up and can’t?

At lunch, I decided to look back at a specific recent example where I got pretty angry about something, and both these guys happened to be arond when it happened. This is a good time to figure out what I could have done differently and could do better in the future.

A few weeks ago, someone came over to ask me something. Then we needed some more information or input and the 2 guys joined in as well. As the 4 of us talked, I noticed the first guy had the wrong idea about the way something was supposed to work. I tried to step in and correct the misconception, so we could move on with the discussion. As I did, people seemed to all be talking at once. And so I would concede and be quiet. Yet as I observed, the conversation kept on in the wrong direction based on the wrong initial assumption. “If only I could correct that, this discussion would go a lot easier,” I thought to myself. I tried to say something again. Still, everyone talking at once. I shut up. This happened several times. Each time I conceded, trying to be polite and not interrupt and let people finish. Yet by being polite, I was also getting frustrated that I was not being heard. Finally, I got a chance to say what I needed to say! Then I got interrupted with what seemed like a dispute that what I was saying was wrong, when I hadn’t even finished what I was saying! And that was the last straw. And I said “Can I finish a sentence!?” It was not nice. It was not pretty, nor polite. But after that, everyone shut up and I got to talk uninterrupted. Indeed, what I had to say did clear some things up, and the conversation continued. Why did it take all that so that I could say my piece?

I think this is a good example of the need to try to be more assertive earlier on, to avoid the agression later on. So I pondered out loud, what could I have done differently to get a word in edgewise?

One of the guys said he noticed he kept interrupting and so he stopped talking too. (I told him if he noticed that, then the bear trap shouldn’t have been so invisible, haha!) But not everyone’s so observant. After some further discussion I realized that while I always stopped talking, the other person just kept talking until I finally stopped. So I concluded that a good thing for me to try would be to not back down so quickly but keep talking longer than I would have previously, and see how that works out.

Trying out the new technique
Later, during that same lunch, we had moved on to a completely different topic and I got a chance to try this out. In this case, I wasn’t saying anything that important, but I was talking when someone else started talking. As I was just about to stop talking and let the other person speak in my stead, I consciously decided to keep talking. I didn’t work. So I kept talking. Still didn’t work. Then, as I kept talking I said “I’m going to keep talking, I’m still talking, but I guess this doesn’t really work does it?” Nobody heard me say that. At that point, I finally conceded. I shut up, we finished our lunch, and I went quietly back to work. In a way it was kind of funny, I guess because it wasn’t important. But it didn’t work.

I’ve been making a consious effort not to let one failed attempt determine that it never works. I’ve tried it MANY more times since then. At least a few times a day. I’ve only had it succeed where I get to keep talking once. And I felt bad, like I was interrupting the other person – I felt rude.

The downside of trying so hard, is that it is more frustrating than it was before. It only takes 1-2 times in a row of really trying to speak and it doesn’t work to get frustrate, where it takes many more times in a row of conceding to get as frustrated. So I’m looking for a new technique. The only thing working for the time being is to do something else to get my mind off it, and let the interrupters talk among themselves. They will usually address me again specifically when they’re done and ready for my input again. That might keep me sane for awhile. But I think I can do better than that. I’ll come up with some new ideas.

Leveraging the fear
Earlier in the lunch discussion, there was talk of whether men’s fear of angry women more than angry men could, unfortunately, contribute to the proverbial glass ceiling for women. Typically your manager has to be more assertive than your peer does. That’s what manager’s have to do. (I said assertive, not agressive.) But who wants to work for someone they’re scared of? That’s my question. And it’s a weird, maybe sad question to ponder.

I can’t help but think about how a male-authored book I’m reading, and 2 men I work with expressed the same sentiment, that this general fear isn’t going away any time soon. Even if a few people start communicating more and become better at distinguising assertion from agression, I still don’t think this fear is going away any time soon. So it seems like there’s got to be some way to leverage this in a way that’s beneficial to everyone! I’ve heard men talk about women managers and company owners who they respect, and who get things done. If they fear these women, it must be some kind of healthy fear that works out somehow, I don’t know. I respect these women, and know it can be done. I guess it gives me hope that I can be successful without being labeled a “bitch.”

Women and the IT community

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.

Confidence

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.

Sexism?

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.

Role Models

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.

CONCLUSION

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.