I realized the other day that I have given my “Women in Tech: Be That Light” presentation a half a dozen times in the last year. One question that I still want a great answer for is when a man in the audience asks, “What can I do to make it better? How can I be that light?” I have ideas from my own experiences, and also point to the training courses and Ally Skills workshops offered by the Ada Initiative.
On a personal level, here’s my short list based on my own experiences. My experiences are colored by my own privileges being white, straight, married with an amazing partner, a parent, living in a great country in a safe neighborhood, working in a secure job. So realize that even while I write my own experiences at a specific place in my career, all those stations in life color my own views, and may not directly help people with backgrounds dissimilar to mine.
What do women in tech need? How can I help?
- Be that friendly colleague at meetups, especially to the few women in the room, while balancing the fact that she probably doesn’t want to be called out as uniquely female or an object to be admired. If you already know her, try to introduce her to someone else with common interests and make connections. If you don’t already know her, find someone you think she would feel comfortable speaking with to say hello. It’s interesting, sometimes I’m completely uncertain about approaching a woman who’s the only “other” woman at a meetup. So, women should also try to find a commonality — maybe one of her coworkers could introduce you to her. For women, it’s important make these connections in friendly and not competing ways, because oddly enough, when I’m the second woman in the room I don’t want to make the other woman feel uncomfortable either!
- Realize that small annoyances over years add up to real frustration. I don’t point this out to say “don’t be annoying” but rather, be a great listener and be extremely respectful. Micro annoyances over time add up to women departing technical communities in droves. See what you can do in small ways, not just large, to keep women in your current tech communities.
- For recruiting, when new women show up online on mailing lists or IRC or Github, please do answer questions with a “there are no questions too small or too large” attitude. I never would have survived my first 90 days working on OpenStack if it weren’t for Jay Pipes and Chuck Thier. Jay patiently helped me set up a real development environment by walking me through his setup on IRC. And since he was used to Github and going to Launchpad/Bazaar himself, he didn’t make me feel dumb for asking. Chuck didn’t laugh too hard when I tried to spell check the HTTP header “referer” to “referrer.” I felt like any other newbie, not a “new girl” with these two. (Woops, and I should never use the term “girl” for anyone over the age of 18.)
- Recognize individuality when talking to team members, regardless of visible differences like gender or ethnicity. I struggle with this myself, having to pause before talking about my kids or my remodeling projects, since not everyone is interested! I struggle with assumptions about people all the time, and have to actively fight them myself. For men, you don’t want to assume an interest in cars or sports, so really this applies regardless of gender. All humans struggle with finding common interests without making assumptions.
- See if you can do small, non-attention-drawing actions that ensure the safety of women in your communities. With the OpenStack Summit being held in different cities twice a year, I’ve been concerned for my personal safety as a woman traveling alone. Admitting that fear means I try to be more savvy about travel, but I still make mistakes like letting my phone battery die after calling a cab in another city after 11 at night. If you see a woman at a party alone, see if you can first make her feel welcome, but then also ensure there are safety measures for her traveling after the event.
- If you see something, say something, and report correctly and safely for both the bad actor and target. This is really hard to do in the moment, believe me, I’ve been there. For me, being prepared is best, and knowing the scenarios and reporting methods ahead of time gives me the slightly better confidence I can do the right thing in the moment even if I’m shocked or scared. Find the “good and bad” ways to deal with incidents through this excellent Allies_training page.
If you’ve read this far, you really do want to make life better as a male ally. Realize that it’s okay to make mistakes — I’ve made them and learned from them over the years. This inclusion work by allies is not the easiest work to do, nor is it rewarding really. It’s the work of being a good human, and we’re all going to screw up. If someone points out a foible to you, such as saying “girls” instead of “women,” say “thank you” and move on, promising to do better next time.
If you think you already do all these things, make sure you look for ways to expand your reach to other minority groups and less privileged participants. I’m trying to do better with the physically different people I encounter at work. I would like to find ways to work well with people suffering from depression. I’ve got a son with Type I diabetes, what sort of advocacy can I do for people with unique medical needs? I’m asking myself how to make a difference. How about you? How can you do your part to equalize the tech industry?