There’s No "U" In Women in Technology

As a regular reader of tech news and various forums, I am regularly witness to articles addressing women in technology—and let me begin by saying that I am profoundly grateful for that. It wasn’t terribly long ago that the very idea that a woman might participate in a STEM field was absolutely shocking. Even as recent as my time in high school some 20 years ago, home economics was for girls, shop was for boys, and computer class was for nerdy boys with poor hand-eye coordination. This shift, from then to now, only happens as a result of this ongoing conversation that happens in the media, on the web, and in our offices.

I am concerned, however, with the narrative that we follow in discussing the shortage of women in technology. We discuss (ad nauseam, some times) who these women are and what they do. We bicker about why they are insufficiently represented and about whether or not there is a pay disparity. We even discuss what women can do to address the gap—like they’re the only part of the equation. Here’s the thing, if we’re going to resolve this, there’s work that’s going to have to be done on both ends of the equation. Certainly, women are going to have to (continue) to do some heavy lifting to continue to stake out their place at the table—but shouldn’t the rest of us consider what we should be doing, too? So that’s what this is, this is the conversation we can have as men as to how we fix this gap…at least part of it.

The most important thing that we can do is to stop pretending that trying to fix this gender divide is a thing we are grudgingly having to do for “them.” I’ve worked around developers more of my life than not at this point, and there is no doubt that we are a supremely homogeneous group. Homogeneity stands firm between a team and progress. The more alike the membership of the group is to one another, the more the group becomes a feedback loop for itself; inflating the importance of its own ideas and confusing concensus with popular opinion.

It is in our best interests to fix this thing. We need our ranks to be filled with as diverse and broad a subset of the human experience as we can manage. Adding women to the mix is just one way, but it’s an important one, and the fix begins easily enough. We can cover serious ground by making one these two simple fixes:

Stop making your space an unsafe one

Imagine, for a moment, a person you do not want to have sex with. I don’t mean someone you find hideous or repellant, mind you, just someone that is completely physically unattractive to you. Perhaps you even enjoy the person’s company, but dating or sex? No way!

Stop picturing me, that’s uncalled for.

Now, imagine that they are participating in a development project with you. They are a member of your team and you see them in-person and online on a regular basis. You are in pretty close to daily contact. Oh…and he or she will not stop hitting on you. Now, I don’t mean that this person is aggressively forcing him or her self at you; that would almost be actionable. Instead you are subjected to all of the flirty behaviors you aren’t interested in. They make jokes-that-are-clearly-not-jokes, they sit too close, they check you out in obvious ways, they invite you on dates-that-aren’t-dates-that-really-are-dates; and they do all of this relentlessly. Take a second, actually picture it.

If you are like me, you are already a little bit uncomfortable, because almost all of us have been in this situation at one point or another and we know how awkward it is to be stuck here. This is not something you are comfortable calling harassment, but he or she won’t take a hint and there’s nothing you can do about it without coming away feeling like a heel.

Now, imagine one more thing for me…imagine that you weren’t even sure that you belonged on this project at all. Imagine that you already felt a little out of place, and THEN all of this happens. How long before you decide that this particular project just isn’t the place for you? How many of these places will you decide aren’t for you before you think that this entire industry just isn’t the place for you?

Listen, from a purely practical sense, it’s a simple concept: the only circumstance wherein you immediately and clumsily hitting on a female on your team is going to end *well* is if she is into you, is looking to be hit on, and doesn’t mind your ham-handed style of flirting. Only if all of these three are true does this end even close to well. In all other cases—if she’s not into you, if her intentions happen to be (*gasp*) focused on this project rather than your libido, or if she would just like to spend some time doing this without having everyone trying to climb into her pants—all you are doing is alienating her. That hostile environment that we just described, that’s what you are creating. The best of the likely outcomes is that she quietly puts up with all of this while tries to focus on this thing that she is actually here for, but the most realistic scenario tends to be that she just goes away.

Start making your space a safe one

The fact of the matter is, even if you stop hitting on all of the women as they arrive in your group, your fellow men in technology are probably still doing it. The next step is to make your work spaces safe, inviting ones for everyone that you wish to attend, including women. It is easy to put together rules and regulations that legislate spaces into safe and inviting ones—and when the space is a place of employment, you almost certainly should do so—but merely putting rules together isn’t enough. The sort of off-putting behaviors that legitimately sends women the message that they don’t belong is notoriously difficult to pin down with any degree of specificity in real life situations.

Social pressure, however, is an amazing thing. Let’s face it; this sort of behavior is truly embarassing to be caught doing. Relentlessly pestering a woman for a date—or doing all of the show-off, plumage-flaring behaviors meant to draw the attention of one’s desired mate—these are humiliating things to be called out on. Use that fact. When you see someone singling out the female in a group for attention, call attention to it.

It doesn’t have to be overt or in front of an entire group of people. In one of my classrooms a year or so ago, I had a very attractive student in a web programming class, one of perhaps 2 female students in a class of nearly 20. She was very good—if not top of the class, then very near it—but that didn’t stop one male student from offering outside-of-class help. After observing a few such offers, I finally had to intervene…

Me (directly to the student): Hey, are you offering additional help?

Student: Yeah…

M (to the class): Hey gang, S is offering to help those of you who are struggling. It’s really cool of him to offer, so, take him up on it.

At the end of class, alone…

S: Hey, I didn’t mean that for the entire class

M: Oh, I’m sorry, I just figured that since offering to help just her is sort of creepy and stalker-y, you must have been making it kinda a general offer.

At this point, the student and I had a brief discussion as to why it is frowned upon to do what he did, why it might be creepy, and why it wouldn’t be allowed in my classroom. Who knows if this ‘teachable moment’ had a lasting impact on him, but at the very least he ceased hitting on this young lady in my classroom. She had one safe space to learn, at least.

Now, there are probably dozens of other things we can do—right off the top of my head, I suggest not letting our impostor syndromes manifest as uber-aggressive know-it-all posturing, for example—but this is a start. Simply recognize how essential it is for all of us that we fix this, then start fixing it by trying not to be a douchebag and pointing out to your friends and co-workers when they are being douchebags. Perhaps we can end this boy’s club that someone created for us. I know I, for one, don’t want it anymore.