Friday, May 15, 2015

An Innocent Visit to a Women in Tech Group Leads to An Unplanned Time Warp

Why are we still asking the same questions about women and technology?

Somewhere along the line when I wasn't paying attention, I passed through an unseen door into a place where I'm now looking backwards as much as forward when it comes to women in tech. I have been noticing this for quite some time but it really smacked me in the face a few weeks ago when I attended a meeting of a new, small, group of mostly tech industry professionals. Women, the vast majority of whom were in their 20s and 30s.

Without planning it, the few of us who were not Millennials found ourselves clumping together randomly throughout the evening. Not all at once, but over and over I found myself having similar conversations with post 40-somethings about differences in our perspective about the issues and concerns of women in tech. We compared notes about what happens when you've been around long enough to see what lies beyond the ideal of a meritocracy in tech.

The larger group formed, from what I can tell, rather spontaneously, as a result of a few women wanting a smaller more intimate space for women than currently exists in larger social & networking groups. This was their second meeting and part of the conversation was about what topics they cared most about. Creating a female oriented space. Work-Life Balance. Designing Your Environment (where "environment" is broadly defined to refer to "world" and "life").  Several people noted that they weren't into some of the more traditionally male associated networking activities that center around "hanging out and drinking and kegs".

Now that I find myself a holder of "institutional memory" I am having weird flashbacks.

Back in the 1980s (the oh so distant past when it comes to tech) I remember having very similar discussions from the context of wanting to break into the tech industry, to be accepted for what I could do rather than what I might look like (i.e. female). Business wasn't about social activism was it? I flip flopped from wanting to be one of the guys in order to be accepted, to wanting to have a place to talk about why that approach never seemed to really work. Determined to succeed by being the best technically and assuming that if I ignored my gender everyone else would have to as well.

Anyone remember Andrew Dice Clay? The guys in my group of developers thought he was hysterical and watched his misogynist Stand Up at off site socializing events, checking with me to see if I was going to fit in by laughing along with them. I remember "Lisa, what do you think? He's funny, right? ... See, Lisa is ok with it". I was offended but didn't say a word. I had lots of reasons. Reason: I needed a job. Reason: I should let things roll off. Reason: I was afraid of not being accepted. However, I was a feminist outside of the office. I once took off for a weekend to attend a rally in Washington DC and when I came back, someone found out, and two of the guys refused to speak to me for weeks. It was a lousy way to tackle work life balance.

There was a divided opinion at the recent women's meeting about whether it was better to go along with male dominated structures and systems, or whether it was better to take explicitly women focused approaches when working for change. The arguments pro and con were the same ones I heard 25 years ago. The concerns about the effect on men were the same ones I heard 25 years ago. The implicit fears about what taking a stand or speaking out would mean for one's career were the same ones I heard 25 years ago.

Several of the women at the meeting worked for a company that makes a cutting edge tech product for athletes. They were discussing their jobs enthusiastically. One of the women listening to them pointed out that the demographic for that company's products is 18-30 year old males. A discussion ensued about why that was, and if the company could expand their market demographic in order to stay competitive. No longer the only player in their market, the competition is heating up. The entire group discussed what men or women might do with the company's products. No one in the room (that I remember) had bought the product for themselves, although a few had bought it for a male they knew. It seemed clear to me that here was an opportunity to do something good for business and for women in tech by, at the very least, changing the product's marketing.

As I later surmised, fears of rocking the boat are sometimes subtle. There wasn't much enthusiasm for altering the existing product or marketing. So I asked if any of the women working in this male dominated tech company on a male oriented product, had any thoughts about the contradiction (?) of their employment situation while we were sitting here in a group explicitly devoted to supporting women in the tech design business?

The initial response was a shocked look and a pause. Then "We have to focus on our target user". Oh, to know history! In a competitive environment, that phrase is the reason many initially successful companies decline and become irrelevant. Nothing related specifically to gender there; it's a business and marketing basic.  Yet someone added, unprompted and dismissively : "It isn't a business issue".  I had to restrain myself from beating my head on the table.

Sadly, that wasn't the last of my throwback moments. Later in the same discussion someone said, as a reason for not changing the existing product / marketing: "Women aren't interested in technology". As Millennials love to say: OMG.

If I had ever been in doubt about whether or not there were still serious issues for women starting out in tech, (and for the record, I wasn't), the fact that we are having the same conversations, the same fears and denials as we had in the 80s would have dispelled them.

By the way, in the 1980s I remember women who were then in their 40s and 50s saying the same darned things about how they were hearing many of the same darned questions and conversations they heard in the 1960s about women with career ambitions in business.

Oddly enough, I initially attended this meeting not knowing if this was the right place for me. It had not so much to do with the idea of a women focused group, but more because of the fact that I felt so much older than most of the women there. I have experiences and perspective that only come with having been around the block a few times.  I wasn't sure if there was a place for me in this group of women. How ironic. After decades spent as one of very few women in my tech world, I found myself one of very few mid career professionals in a room full of tech women. Neither situation is ideal or particularly comfortable.

Well...I come away from that meeting with more questions and more to think about than I came in with. But one thing I am more sure about than ever: as long as people (women or men) are still asking the same questions about women and technology in a male dominated environment, groups like this one are needed. I hope we can find a way to move forward so that 25 years from now the current group of women in tech don't find themselves having the same deja vu.