I am confused about women in tech

I am confused about women in tech

(As published on The Pastry Box on 23rd February 2015)

Hi,

I’m a woman in tech and I am SO confused. What am I doing wrong in trying to get more women in tech?

I grew up in a family that not only supported my use of technology (without making any fuss or a point about it…technology was always available to me, no questions asked — I might talk about my history with computers another time) but made it feel second nature to me; I grew up in a biggish town in Southern Italy where one important meeting point for our generation was the #Bitonto IRC channel. I have been online dating since I was old enough to know what a date is (and yes, I can hear your surprise sounds, considering I did not grow up in London or Rome, but in a 60,000 citizen town in Southern Italy!).

So to me and to the people surrounding me, being a geek girl has been quite normal. To the less techy people, I was just the “technologic” one.

Then I came to London. Slowly I came out of my “computers are my hobby” shell and decided to make it my career, and slowly I started receiving lots of “wow, you are a web developer?”

I started to go to lots of community-run events with the intent of learning more, staying up-to-date with new technologies and meeting other people who do the same job as me to inspire me and share stories with. This included London Web Standards, a monthly meetup and a yearly conference I still help organise. I suddenly found myself being one of the very few women there, so I instinctively started to chat with the other women there. A bit because I was curious about the other members of what started to seem like a “rare species”, and a bit because it felt natural to group with other girls.
Nonetheless, luckily, thanks to my social nature and because I had started to get used to work and therefore interact with more boys than girls, I tried to socialise with as many people as possible and I have met some of my closest friends until now, boys and girls.

I accepted that maybe there were more boys in the web development industry than girls or that at least, there always seemed to be more boys at community events than girls. Fine.

But then I went a step further and started volunteering at Ladies Who Code, a monthly meetup aimed at girls who are already web developers or are studying to become web developers or would like to do the jump. And while volunteering there I got a lot of “Why do you need a women-only event? What if we did a men-only event, we’d be completely slashed by the entire Web Dev community, so why can you girls do it?”

I was stunned.

I never thought I was doing something wrong. I still have not worked out the women in tech issue and I am still confused.

So I tried in my mind to analyse what the situation is.

“We don’t have enough women in tech”.

Some of the solutions suggested:

  1. starting from schools, encourage women to take up computing or coding courses
  2. encourage women to submit talks to conferences where most of the time, the line-up tends to be male-dominated
  3. support women and encourage them to pursue a career in web development

I still have not managed to do n.1, maybe this could be my new year resolution. I have made a start at 2 and 3, but this only confused me more.

A good conference is a conference where there’s a good percentage of female attendees and speakers. Great. Except it’s such hard work, if not close to impossible.
Forget the big conferences, a big budget can allow the organisers to fly in female speakers from all over the world. How hard is it in Europe when you have a tiny budget and can barely pay the speakers back for their Eurostar and hotel stay? VERY.

Let me put together a possible scenario. I speak of what I have read on Twitter happening to speakers and organisers, and my experience at London Web Standards, a volunteer-run 100+ monthly event and a yearly conference with 400 attendees, so that you can understand where we are compared to much bigger conferences. And we are volunteers.

The first year you get in touch with the big names out there in the UK, male and female and think this is going to be really good for your conference, but the results won’t always be the best: some of them will be too busy speaking around the world and won’t be able to make your conference. The ones who might be free might bring a talk they’ve already presented at possibly at least one of the big conferences. This is fine for most attendees of our conferences who can’t afford the big conferences, but some of the most “travelled” conference attendees would say they have already seen the talk couple of times.
The conference goes quite well anyway, but some of the feedback still seems to be “Good, but it would be good to see some new faces next year” or “It would be good to see more female speakers”.
(At London Web Standards we also had the issue where we needed browser representatives for our first State of the Browser conferences (we have widened the scope now) and we could not help the fact that the representatives happened to be male).

So you need to up your game in the second year. The feedback shouts loud and clear: you need to find more female speakers and new speakers with fresh material!

And this is where I get really confused again.

I’ve read of female speakers complaining they had been approached by conference organisers because they were told they were looking for more female speakers. They were offended.

Sure, you contact a speaker for her content and talent, not just because she is female.
You have a few options here:

    • you network at conferences and meet new speakers, either among the attendees or among the current speakers, but these might be existing biggish names
    • you browse lanyrd.com or follow RTs and mentioned of possible female speakers in your twitter stream and sometimes find a possible candidate
    • you can follow blogs

But most of these names might have already started presenting at a few conferences.

But it gets even harder: we are supposed to find “new faces” every year. How is it possible to find potential female speakers who have never or almost never spoken at a conference before?

Luckily there is some guidance offered by Anna Shipman in her article “How to get women speakers”, but I am still baffled. I have been finding it extremely hard to find new female speakers.

There are so many female web developers out there, I am confident about that, but not many of them blog or say what they are working on or what interesting discoveries they might have done. So sometimes all you can go by is a very slim Twitter bio and no blog.

How am I to know that that person can’t possibly have anything interesting to share? How can I not offend somebody who clearly has not published anything whatsoever hinting to the fact that she might be interested in speaking when I email her and ask if she would be interested in submitting a talk?

Surely some of these people might think “oh she’s just contacted me because I am a woman” — how about the truth: I am trying to make sure this conference can be more diverse this year, as requested by the community. I am trying to encourage people who might not have considered speaking at a conference before, maybe just because nobody ever asked them? And I am asking you because you work in this field and you might have something interesting to share (I personally think most of us do, otherwise for example this project would not exist)?

But how am I going to be able to get closer to a less male-dominated lineup if I don’t try and approach as many women as I can, even if sometimes I could approach the wrong person?
Surely trial and error is one of the best way to get results?
What is wrong with that? As I said, I am still very confused about how we can go and get more women to speak. In the meantime, I will still try and wander in the dark, and hopefully not really offend anybody.

Let me tell you instead about my experience in trying to support women and encourage them to pursue a career in web development and what still confuses me about it.
Ladies Who Code seemed to me the natural scenario for this. My idea of this group was not of a place where we can complain about how horrible life is in a male-dominated environment, as some people might think.
My idea of the group instead was to inform and encourage other women to attend other community-led events on web development, where they could learn tons more, meet new friends and make the connections they might need to start working in this field. I have recommended London Web Standards and other user groups to women who never had heard of them, and encouraged them by saying “Don’t worry if you don’t know anybody, I’ll be there and I can introduce you to lots of other friendly faces”.

I have shared my story with lots of women, being self taught and still able to make it. I thought it could inspire lots of women who are not sure they can change their career and jump into Web Development. I wanted to always shout loud and clear my message “You can make it!”.
I have shared online resources, connected people, in particular people looking for work with recruiters or potential companies who might hire a Web Developer.

But what I welcomed the most, as a person who already had some experience in the field, was that fresh feeling of somebody starting from zero, that willingness to learn and the endless possibilities for them that suddenly made me fall in love with Web Development once again.

I also welcomed non-web-development-related conversations, which, let’s be honest, I can rarely have with my male colleagues: where did you buy that jumper, how do you make a good Dutch Apple Pie, where in London can you find size 2.5 shoes, and does anybody like my new dress?
This especially I miss in my work day (although that has not stopped me from sharing some girly stuff and bless those colleagues who have listened to me and sometimes chatted back about it. You know who you are and thank you for that). And it’s a real shame that sometimes there might not be at least a couple of colleagues we could share some more girly personal facts with, which might be too geeky for some of our girlfriends but too girly for our male colleagues. So this is when a women-only meetup can come in handy!

And yet, somebody was still telling me what I was doing was not correct.
It made me sad and angry and as I said, still confuses me.
I have left Ladies Who Code, and since then in London a few more community events directed to girls have sprung up, like Rails Girls and Codebar.io. I still think it’s a great idea. I would love to know if they have received similar negative comments and what they think about it.
I have not been strong enough to carry on on a large scale, mainly scared by the comments I have received, but I am still nurturing my relationship with fellow girl developers I have met. I still try to meet new ones when I go to events, because deep down I think I have been doing nothing wrong, if not the opposite.

Why can’t we all acknowledge and agree we have a problem: we need a more mixed environment. All we are trying to do is to encourage as many women as possible to join these careers, to join the social side of it and the educational side of it.
I think once everybody starts helping out without complaining that “this activity is excluding men” or “I’ve only being involved because I am a woman and they need more women” and starts just getting on with it, by sharing their knowledge and encouraging everybody and anybody, maybe we’ll actually get somewhere.

Maybe we just have to admit it’s a slow journey to get on board as many women as there are men, because historically have not even been allowed to join some fields. The percentage of women in our field is growing every minute, and if we just helped rather than complain, we’d get there quicker.

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