I’m at the venerable LISA (Large Installation System Administration) Conference in Boston this week. I just left a panel on Women in Tech. This rap session/problem-solving brainstorm was a great way to wrap up an exhilarating and encouraging year for women in IT. I was reminded of two of my favorite works on why the gender gap persists, not to mention lots of other diversity gaps: a 2006 study by the Free/Libre/Open Source Software Policy Support project and Skud’s amazing 13 minute breakdown of everything you need to know from OSCon 2009.
The discussion ranged from encouraging women to adapt to open source culture, to moderating online communities to stop flame wars before they start. I mentioned that I see a lot of success from code-centric programs for women, but I don’t know how to apply those lessons to system administration. You can get started with programming by taking a class or practicing online, but to be a confident sysadmin you have to live through a few massive server crashes as an apprentice. Maybe we should be designing sysadmin bootcamps for women and their friends… Hmm…
Although we didn’t delve into early education or college enrollment, the discussion resulted in eleven “action items” that anyone can do to make existing tech professions more welcoming to everyone.
1. If you see something, say something.
If someone is being unprofessional, sexist, racist, or generally a jerk, say something. Conversations/mailing lists/IRC channels that have loud jerks that don’t get called out, tend to drive away non-jerks, resulting in a higher concentration of jerks. If non-jerks make it clear that poor behavior isn’t ok, you’re more likely to maintain a pleasant community norm.
2. Let people know that a problem exists.
Privilege imparts a funny superpower: folks who have lots of it can go through life unaware of it. For example, there are lots of dudes who think sexism is sooo over and don’t think they are part of the problem. So it’s important for those of us who experience discrimination (not just gender) let people know that there’s still work to do. That also goes for white folks and racism, able-bodied folks and ableism, etc.
3. Seek and foster training opportunities.
The education and experience gap that’s inherent in open source culture in particular came up a lot. The massive success of projects like PyStar shows that there is a huge need for environments where new people can learn without being intimidated. For now, the traditional education system isn’t enough.
4. Be visible.
Emma Jane Hogbin’s Unicorn Law states that “If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.” Yeah, well. The thought here is having more women in visible roles in the workplace and the culture normalizes their presence and provides role models. So go ahead and volunteer for committees and panels.
5. Speak to be heard.
We spent a good amount of time commenting on the well documented differences between American women and men in negotiating and communicating. Personally, I’m not so invested in helping women communicate in a more “masculine” way because I think the underlying assumptions are more interesting. I also think that stereotypical “dudely” communication styles are the problem (aggression, interrupting, overconfidence), not women’s purported tendency to admit uncertainty. But I do agree that communicating so that you’re heard is a good skill to have.
6. Invite allies.
There are a lot of would-be allies who don’t know they are invited to the discussion! Invite non-women, and consider naming events so that they don’t sound exclusive to women. My suggestion was to substitute “Gender Equity in Tech” for “Women in Tech”.
7. Use inclusive meeting facilitation techniques.
Free-form meetings favor the bold. Using other techniques like go-arounds or even taking stack can help everyone be heard.
8. Make hidden work more visible.
Both sysadmins and women do a lot of work that, if done correctly, isn’t noticed. Your server didn’t crash today? That’s because a sysadmin made it so. Women in tech take on a lot of work that’s invisible or quietly keeps operations flowing. Being vocal about the work you do helps people understand your worth.
9. Foster a mentorship community.
Again with the role models! Well, more than that. Workplaces are less apt than they used to be to nurture employees by investing time and training. But throwing a new tech person to the wolves is totally not nice. A mentorship program can give newer folks insight into the job requirements, sure, but also the insider knowledge like who to ask about XYZ topic, or how the workplace culture functions.
10. Use inclusive recruitment techniques and gender neutral language.
There’s evidence that women are more likely to underestimate their expertise and men more likely to overestimate it. This can hurt women in interviews when they know what they’re talking about just as well as the next candidate, but are less emphatic than their male counterparts. Interviewers can be aware of this or even try to correct for it by considering both an interviewee’s expertise and their confidence level–and how well they match.
And please, please, it’s the firewall ADMIN, not the firewall GUY.
11. The medium is the message: Blog about it!
Get on your various soapboxes on the interwebs and in real life. I sense that this issue is really gaining traction, partly because of how many people are talking about it. Let’s keep up the momentum.
During the panel I was struck, again, by how much women want to talk about their experiences, good and bad. I was also struck by the totally non-zero number of men present and how much they want to be allies, even as a couple made classic missteps like interrupting or making a dismissive comment that was intended to be empowering.
Many thanks to moderator Lois Bennett and panelists Carolyn Rowland, Deb Nicholson, and Mairin Duffy for leading a lively and insightful discussion, and Chris St. Pierre for coordinating the “Guru Is In” sessions at LISA. Wouldn’t you know it, Deb Nicholson works with the Boston Python Workshop, which is bff’s with PyStar (Python training for women and their friends). Deb also works on Open Hatch, the brainchild of Boston Python Workshop organizer and recent Philadelphian Asheesh Laroia. Tiny world! (Corrections added 12/20/2011-Thanks for the clarification, Deb!)