Category Archives: women in technology

Giving Women Credit

What can be done to improve retention of women in tech? Here’s one suggestion: recognize and reward our accomplishments. As management advice goes, this may seem obvious, even trivial, but it can have huge impact on women’s job satisfaction and career advancement. Everyone has been given career advice like this: “In addition to doing excellent Read More…

What can be done to improve retention of women in tech? Here’s one suggestion: recognize and reward our accomplishments. As management advice goes, this may seem obvious, even trivial, but it can have huge impact on women’s job satisfaction and career advancement.

Everyone has been given career advice like this:

“In addition to doing excellent work, you must make sure that your work is recognized. This may consist of making a point to tell your boss, or your boss’s boss, what you have done—either orally, or by sending reports or copies of pertinent correspondence.

Deborah Tannen: Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work

In other words, “lean in.” But… there’s a Catch-22 for women in such advice. Continue reading

Sex and Tech Events

I set the scene in an earlier post: at any conference that I attend, especially when working a booth, I am expending energy every moment to prove that I am there as a technical contributor to my company and the event – a role which, for men, is taken for granted. Now let’s look at an Read More…

I set the scene in an earlier post: at any conference that I attend, especially when working a booth, I am expending energy every moment to prove that I am there as a technical contributor to my company and the event – a role which, for men, is taken for granted.

Now let’s look at an incident that occurred at a tech event I did not attend, and conjecture about how I might have reacted had I been there. Below is a description from a male attendee of a company-sponsored party at Sun Microsystems’ Java One in 2007:

“…the good fun event turned into a sexually explicit strip show with “Grinder Girl” running a grinder over her metal clad genital area. I was stunned. When I recovered, I started feeling cheated and betrayed. I was thrust into a situation where my ethics against objectifying women and remaining loyal to my wife (watching an exotic dancer is a betrayal of her trust) were being challenged. I looked around at the women in the crowd. They were both embarrassed and shocked.

This is an industry that is struggling to attract women and minorities, and Sun Microsystems puts on an exotic dancer at one of the largest technology shows in the Industry. That is despicable.”

You can read the full story in the first anonymous comment here. I was not a Sun employee at the time, and don’t know how or if the company responded.

Suppose I had been there, or at any other industry event where the entertainment turns out to be some kind of sexualized performance. (No, I’m not going to argue about what I mean by a “sexualized” performance. For now, let’s say that it’s something most onlookers would agree was to some degree sexual.)

So, there I am in a room with thousands of people, most of them strangers and most of them men, watching a performance designed to arouse sexual feelings. How would I feel?

Immediately defensive and vulnerable. With good reason.

I would know that many of the men around me would be watching my reactions, to judge who I “am”:

Am I dismayed by what I see just because it’s sexual? Though not my natural response, this might be my safest one in this context. Almost no culture in the world today is comfortable with women openly expressing sexuality or interest in sex.

If I did display even the mildest enjoyment, some of the male onlookers would be shocked, and some titillated, by my reaction. For a woman to publicly demonstrate that she enjoys something sexual risks being taken as a signal that she is “up for it” – welcoming any sexual attention. (Whereas any man watching could cheer, applaud, catcall, and whistle, with no fear of bodily consequences.)

I have already expended effort at this conference to prove that I’m here for my technical knowledge, not my body. Having some women present as sexual entertainers brings into question the role of all women at this event. However, even if there were male dancers on the stage, that would not affect the default assumption that all male conference attendees are at the event for their technical skills and knowledge.

Any entertainment or humor based on sex or race will cause discomfort, but any reaction may elicit counter-reactions of “Can’t you take a joke?” If the entertainment was someone singing and dancing in blackface, or telling anti-Semitic jokes, the problem would be easily recognized and no excuses accepted. But, when the entertainment object is a woman, women are supposed to just deal with it, even if it makes us genuinely uncomfortable. “Don’t be so damned PC!” “Do you have to take the fun out of everything?” Some people would be watching me to see: “Is she gonna be cool about this?”

Men can also have this problem: the commenter who shared this story was very unhappy, but his reaction was to quietly walk away and discuss it with a like-minded colleague, and then to comment anonymously on a Sun blog post, instead of, say, writing a post under his own name, or taking it up with his sales rep at Sun. Perhaps he, too, feared being judged “uncool” or “a troublemaker”.

In sum: there is no good way for a woman to react in a situation like this. And people are watching to see how we react. What was supposed to be a fun evening turns into a harrowing public examination with no correct answer.

With all of this running through my mind, I would have felt uncomfortable, even vulnerable. Like the anonymous commenter, I likely would have distanced myself from the performers and the people watching them, and perhaps left the party altogether, abandoning opportunities to network and socialize with my industry peers. I would have been effectively “othered” right out of an industry event, in an industry that I have to fight every day to be part of.

I’d love to live in a world where I didn’t feel that way about a display of skin. A world where sexuality can be a celebrated part of everyday life (and even a safe, respected career choice), and we can all simply enjoy performers (exotic or otherwise) as part of the entertainment.

But… we’re not there now. And we’re especially not there in the tech industry. In today’s tech industry, women constantly have to prove that we are present at events (and hold our very jobs) because of our technical capabilities – not to be decorative, or as someone’s girlfriend. Our industry is not mature enough for sexualized roles and entertainment at events not to be a problem. Maybe someday we will be, but that time is not now.

Twenty Years of Being a Woman at Tech Events

Since the early 1990s, I have attended tech events large and small in the US, Italy, Germany, and India. I was usually one of a small number of women attending or staffing in some technical capacity, i.e. able to speak knowledgeably about technologies and products. There were always other women around, but most of those were Read More…

Since the early 1990s, I have attended tech events large and small in the US, Italy, Germany, and India. I was usually one of a small number of women attending or staffing in some technical capacity, i.e. able to speak knowledgeably about technologies and products. There were always other women around, but most of those were contracted for the duration of the event to work in a booth, taking business cards and giving out schwag. That work is useful and needed, but was not what I was there for.

I understood early on that I was an anomaly. A few times I even played on it: wearing a miniskirt while on booth duty, then waiting in glee to see how long it would take people to realize that I actually knew what I was talking about. (In Italy, it is not unusual for women to wear miniskirts to professional events.) But, even when I played with it, I wanted to be recognized for my brains and technical knowledge, not for my body.

No matter how I dressed, it was always an uphill battle.

I myself have not experienced overt harassment at a tech event, though I know very well that it happens. I experienced a more subtle (and probably unconscious) form of harassment in having to prove my technical knowledge, over and over. In most people’s minds, a woman in a booth by default is fit only to swipe badges and serve coffee. Then: “Oh, you actually know something! How unusual!” It gets… tiring.

There were more blatantly sexist things going on around me, constantly. Some memorable incidents include:

CeBit, Europe’s equivalent to Comdex/CES: In 1994, three female Italian colleagues staffed a booth for our small company there, and were very popular with (male) partners and customers. The following year, the company sent three men. The same partners and customers would walk up to the booth and ask: “Where are the girls?” – then walk away in disappointment, without leaving so much as a business card. (Of the two groups of three, each time, one person was technical and the other two were sales/marketing.)

But the real attention-getters at CeBit were the svelte women walking around in skin-tight ski suits printed with a Swiss cheese design – a marketing campaign by the government of Switzerland. Men chased them around the pavilions to take photos.

CeBit also featured beer tents which, in the evenings, quickly became rowdy with businessmen drinking and singing. I didn’t go in. Being among few women in such a situation, my best hope would have been to be mistaken for a waitress. No doubt I missed some industry networking opportunities.

The Adult Entertainment Expo used to be co-located with CES in Las Vegas, to “help exhibitors minimize travel expenses and maximize networking opportunities.” One of the years I staffed a booth at CES, we were in the same building as the Expo, leading to scenes in the common hallways of male tech staff chasing after women porn stars for autographs and photos. I was amused, but there was a blur to this situation that I didn’t like: was I there as a subject or an object? Given that most of the women present were there to be looked at, one way or another, people might understandably be confused. At least there was no doubt about the women porn performers’ starring roles in their products, while I, as a woman, was not assumed to be a co-creator in the technology I was selling.

CES hasn’t changed: it continues to feature “booth babes” in scanty clothing (or practically none). This is now sanctified as “tradition” and because “sex sells.”

The idea that women exist primarily for men to look at so permeates tech events that there have been multiple incidents of men posting photos of “the babes of [event]” – including women who were there as attendees and speakers – and claiming that those women should feel flattered!

Then there was the tech scene in Italy, which I’ve written about before.

And I almost forgot to mention, because it’s been so immutable a part of the tech conference experience forever, the very small numbers of women speakers.

In sum: The full impact of how women are presented, perceived, and treated at tech events cannot be fully felt or understood via any single incident, no matter how egregious. What weighs on women in tech is year after year after year of these incidents and attitudes.

So, when we react with rage to the latest example of sexism in tech manifesting at a conference, we’re not being “overly sensitive”. This is a severe allergic reaction, built up over multiple exposures. It’s all the more discouraging to see how little has changed in twenty years – little improvement, and no end in sight.

Read next: Sex and Tech Events

“You Can Always Go to a Startup”

“You can always go to a startup.” Job seekers in the Bay Area hear this refrain, especially from people with no experience of startups (or tech, or the Bay Area). Startups are seen as the sexy option. Some startup employees even dismiss those who stay in “safe” jobs at bigcos: “You must lack the guts Read More…

“You can always go to a startup.” Job seekers in the Bay Area hear this refrain, especially from people with no experience of startups (or tech, or the Bay Area). Startups are seen as the sexy option. Some startup employees even dismiss those who stay in “safe” jobs at bigcos: “You must lack the guts or the talent to be out on the tech frontier, boldly disrupting the establishment!”

Easy for you to say. For many of us, working for a startup is not a realistic option. Not because we lack guts or talent (many of us have worked at startups before) but because most startup jobs are – by design – suited only to a very particular demographic. This limits employment prospects for the many who are not part of that group, but it also hurts the startups themselves.

If you’re a startup founder, you may think you don’t care about this particular problem, but you should.

The Lifecycle Barrier

I am not (for the moment) talking about the sexism and racism rampant in tech today. These are real problems and I in no way dismiss them, but there’s another barrier to job mobility, one that sooner or later everyone may face. I’m referring to the human lifecycle which, for many of us, looks like this:

  1. childhood
  2. college
  3. relationships / marriage
  4. babies
  5. kids growing up
  6. kids in college/empty nest
  7. retirement

For the first phase or two of this cycle, we usually have others providing for us. From phase three, we start providing for others, including our future retired selves.

The financial onus of a traditional middle-class family lifestyle today is staggering, more so in real estate markets like the Bay Area. People with families need decent salaries, good benefits, and humane hours: basic working conditions that are not met by most startup jobs.

The Trouble with Startups

Startups tend to offer lower salaries and skimpier benefits*,  while expecting long working weeks. As an employee, you are asked to invest a lot of time and brainpower in a venture which is extremely unlikely to pay off for you. The bait is lottery odds of getting rich on stock options, or a (usually illusive) sense of participation in “changing the world”.

It’s tempting to believe that startups and the VCs who fund them rely on the naïveté of young techies to fill these jobs. Regardless, most older employees can’t follow a startup dream even if we’d like to: we simply can’t afford the financial risk while we have responsibilities to provide for others. This is what I call the lifecycle barrier.

The lifecycle barrier is not exactly the same as ageism. It is possible to be older and less encumbered – e.g. divorced, kids grown, retirement funds safely socked away. But then ageism does come into play: many startups and VCs won’t even look at older people anyway.

Why You Need Lifecycle Diversity in Your Startup

The lifecycle problem harms startups in at least two critical ways.

First, it reduces the pool of candidates available for hire by startups. There’s huge demand for young people willing to work (and be compensated) startup-style, and every company is competing for a limited pool of such. Hence the increasingly strained attempts to stand out in cheap perks like free lunches, designer coffee, and employee drinkups.

Even if you manage to hire all the bright young things you want, you’ll still be missing something: your team will lack the perspective that diversity brings. The kind of perspective that comes with different cultures and experiences, sexes and sexualities, and just plain years of life and work. If the intended users of your products include any demographic other than young techies, you’re at far greater risk of failing (with a company, a product, or a feature) through lack of life experience and the broader empathy that such experience brings. You risk death by groupthink.

And then… young employees do get older, and eventually start to care about mortgages and school districts. If your financial model relies on your staff working 80 hours a week for relatively low wages, you may be sitting on a time bomb: can you cash out before key employees leave because they can no longer afford to work on your terms?

Fixing the Problem

If you’re a founder or investor, what could you change? What could you do to attract the diverse range of employees that your startup needs?

It probably requires rethinking your financial model and compensation structure, and thinking about what it means to be a desirable employer to a broad range of people. It requires thinking about company culture and how it is expressed, and whether yours is welcoming to more people than the stereotypical [young, male] startup employee. Myself and various middle-aged friends have had the experience of walking into a startup office and thinking: “I would not fit in here. Nor would I even want to.” Does this describe your company? Fix that.

So here’s a challenge: Think you’re a disruptor? Prove it. Start by disrupting the startup employment model. A whole bunch of smart, capable potential employees will be watching. And you might even persuade some of us to come work for you.


PS

As for me, I now work for Ericsson, arguably the most multinational company in the world, which keeps the long-term welfare of its employees very much in mind. People who join Ericsson tend not to leave.

People with families do, of course, sometimes found and work for startups. But those who can afford to do so often have already achieved sufficient financial security (perhaps having been winners in an earlier startup lottery) to take the risk. To be a serial entrepreneur, you have to have had a success somewhere along the line.

For more reasons and ways startup culture needs to change, read Shanley Kane’s YOUR STARTUP IS BROKEN: INSIDE THE TOXIC HEART OF TECH CULTURE. It’s uncomfortable reading. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Melinda Byerly for very useful comments on this piece!

* The original article “Benefits matter, or why I won’t work for your Y Combinator startup” appears to have been completely removed from the Internet by its author. Which is a pity. It made some good and true points, and generated some useful discussion, you can see examples at the link above.

Men, Women, and Salary Negotiation

“To get ahead in business, women need to speak up, blow their own horns, and always negotiate their salary offers. In other words: act like men.” Women hear this sort of thing often. I’ve said it myself as well-meaning advice to other, especially younger, women. We heard it from many speakers at the WITI summit, Read More…

“To get ahead in business, women need to speak up, blow their own horns, and always negotiate their salary offers. In other words: act like men.”

Women hear this sort of thing often. I’ve said it myself as well-meaning advice to other, especially younger, women. We heard it from many speakers at the WITI summit, successful women who were presumably giving this advice because it had worked for them. Research shows that it can be effective in getting that raise, VC meeting, promotion, or next job.

There are two problems with women emulating men in this way:

  1. The social rules are different for men and women. A man who is assertive and self-promoting is considered, well, manly. A woman who does the same is more often considered a bitch. Both men and women react negatively to “pushy” women.
  2. Because of Point 1 or for socialized reasons, most women feel uncomfortable behaving this way. As a male friend pointed out, telling women to behave more like men is similar to telling introverts they should behave like extroverts. It implies a judgement that the extroverted or “male” way is the “best” mode of human interaction, and we should all strive to emulate it. For some, this may be harrowingly uncomfortable – for some, it’s downright impossible.

There are reams of advice given on doing business in other cultures: how to fit in, how not to offend, how to negotiate with someone who may see things very differently than you do and may not give the cultural cues that you expect. Such advice stresses understanding and compromise, and we all agree that it would be unproductive and gauche to expect our counterparts from other cultures to adapt entirely to our ways.

So why is it acceptable to demand that women take on the modes of interaction more native to men (or introverts to extroverts)?

I have read articles about how even hirers are frustrated at the way women “leave money on the table”. To paraphrase a piece written by an anonymous hiring manager: “I’m authorized to give a higher starting salary, but only if they ask for it. The women never ask, the men always do.”

The women in these situations say, if asked, that they felt the offer was fair – i.e., they assumed the employer would treat them fairly – and/or they didn’t feel comfortable making a counter request and being perceived as pushy broads before even starting a new job. But if they later learned or guessed that they were paid less than a man (or another woman) for the same job, you can bet they resented the hell out of it, and felt betrayed by their employer.

Avoiding “politics” of this kind is a big motivator for many women to found their own businesses: when you’re the boss, you can ensure that your employees are treated fairly.

My own feeling is: if you (my employer) think my job is worth $n, that’s what you should pay me; I should not have to ask. (If you don’t know what the job is worth, I may not either – why don’t we figure it out together?)

Telling women that we’re leaving money on the table by not asking is blaming the victim. Paying higher salaries to those who merely ask rewards negotiating skills, not professional merit or hard work in a particular role which may have nothing to do with the ability to be an aggressive bargainer.

The same applies to introverts – which, by the way, often describes some of your most valuable staff: programmers. Many male engineers are naive, young, introverted, and/or socially awkward, which puts them in a similar position to women at the bargaining table. They may accept your first offer and not subsequently question their salaries, as long as they can pay the rent.

But, in a hot job market, you’re taking a risk when you pay people less than you can afford and know they’re worth. Your best and brightest (men or women, outgoing or introverted) get job offers every week, and if you’re paying them at the low end of the scale, it’s easy for someone else to make a better offer. Company rules may “discourage” your employees from discussing their salaries with each other, but a recruiter may be happy to say: “Oh, we pay a lot better for that position.”

If you value an employee and want to keep them, it’s in your best interest to deal with them transparently, honestly, fairly, and in a way that accommodates their individual character and style. If that’s not already part of your company culture and policy, perhaps it’s time to revisit those things and think about what kind of company you want to be, in order to keep your best and brightest, and attract more like them.