Sunday, September 28th, 2008
It looks like I’m going to be running a panel discussion on Women in Technology at Web 2.0 Expo Europe. I’ve often steered clear of discussions about gender roles in the technology sector because they are so rarely constructive. It’s obvious that women are under-represented in tech, at conferences, in media coverage, etc. And it’s also obvious that the reasons why women are under-represented are complex, and aren’t going to be untangled by one panel discussion or one blog post.
So how can we make this discussion different? How can we have a discussion that counts? What sort of things are worth highlighting?
There are a few issues that I’ve stumbled upon lately that I think might be relevant:
- Gender stereotypes distort our memories and behaviour - when we believe that our performance reflects upon the rest of our gender, we under-perform and underestimate our past performances when recalling them.
- Women need female role models - this might seem self-evident, but now there’s evidence that “women more than men need role models who are the same gender as they are.”
- Testosterone can fuel entrepreneurship - in a male-dominated industry, how does this affect women?
Are these threads worth teasing out? What else do we need to look at to understand not just what’s going on, but what to do about it? How can we get really pragmatic about an issue that is very emotive and sometimes contentious?
UPDATE: I’ve been pointed in the direction of this post from Rain about the discussion she lead at BarCamp London 5 about gender (scroll about halfway down). The discussion included many anecdotes, which I summarise here:
- Men seem to get nudged along the career path in a way that women don’t. Women rarely seem to get the key roles - or the keynotes - that men do.
- Women are often made to feel inferior to their colleagues, even if they are as knowledgeable. This manifests as things like not being included in conversations.
- Women are ignored when they are present at events: photographers don’t take photos of them, and the conference T-shirts don’t come in women’s sizes.
- Women should blog more and be more visible.
The final point about the ghettoisation of women, and the attendant internalisation of misogyny, is one that deserves a whole section to itself. Now, it’s important to acknowledge that not all women are the same. Some women feel much more comfortable in large groups of their own gender, and some women do not. Some women actually feel more comfortable in large groups of men, and I suspect these are the ones that do best in the tech industry and at tech conferences. (And Rah! for them! We should celebrate these women, not pillory them.)
I grew up in an environment that was, in many ways, split strongly along gender lines. My family was very male - lots of male cousins - but my Mum worked in an almost exclusively female environment. I was frequently exposed to single gender groups and particularly to some very large groups of women (1000+). I’ve come to believe that single gender groups are inherently unhealthy: Men get over-testosteroney and women get catty. The groups with the healthiest dynamics are evenly balanced mixed-gender groups.
The aversion to large groups of women that I developed through my childhood and teenage years is one reason I’m not keen on conferences such as BlogHer or events like the Girl Geek Dinner (and yes, I know that men do attend both). Maybe that’s just my problem and I need to get over it. But there’s another aspect to this - if women only associate with women, where are they going to get the experience of walking into large groups of men and maintaining their sense of self, their confidence, and their self-belief?
I know that the idea of women-focused events is that women understand each other, and can learn from each other, take risks in a safe environment and that this will boost their confidence. But that can only ever go so far, even if it’s true. I personally find that someone’s past experience of life is a better indicator of how much they will understand me than their gender. There are plenty of men out there who totally empathise with me and many women who do not.
Like anything in life, the more you do of something, the more you practise something, the better you get at it. Public speaking, for example. Or presenting to a group of men. Or putting yourself forward for talks or key roles at work. The only way you improve your confidence in what are, frankly, some quite difficult situations is by doing them even if they scare the crap out of you.
Most of my life has been characterised by the feeling that I am just one step away from being found out as a fraud. I am not a fraud, however. I am damn smart, I have great experience in my field of expertise - indeed, I am an expert - and I am more than capable of taking on any man on his territory and winning. Yet the feeling of inadequacy still lurks just underneath the surface. Hanging out with lots of women at a conference isn’t going to help me because it doesn’t treat the core problem.
What’s going to help me is learning how to promote myself, how to do marketing, how to put myself forward and blow my own trumpet - all things that society seems to prefer women not to do. And once I’ve learnt a few techniques, the next step is to put them into practice. I can only learn to work confidently in a room of men twice my age with four times my self-belief is to get out there and get on with it. No man is going to give me a break just because I have two X chromosomes.
There are plenty of ways in which the less enlightened members of the male species act, deliberately or unconsciously, against the interests of the women around them. And there are plenty of men who work hard to combat the misogyny they see around them. But if women self-ghettoise, I don’t think they are doing themselves any favours in terms of their own personal development and they risk alienating their male allies.
Ultimately, the issue of gender is not just about men’s reactions and perceptions, and it’s not just about women’s lack of self-confidence. It’s about the complex web of societal, business and personal expectations that conspire - sometimes deliberately, sometimes not - to prevent women from fulfilling their potential. It’s a complicated issue and so we need to treat it as such and try to understand the inherent nuance.