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 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

Those Anti-Social Smartphones

An ironically popular theme in social media lately is “Smartphones have made people antisocial!”, often illustrated with a photo of a bunch of people who happen to be standing or sitting near each other, all heads-down, engrossed in whatever is happening on their phones. There is usually accompanying text, some sanctimonious, head-shaking statement about how “before smartphones, people used to actually talk to each other in public.”

Actually, they didn’t. Continue reading “Those Anti-Social Smartphones”

GHC09: Women in the Flat Connected World

^ Panelists (L->R): Kristin Rozier (NASA); Sumitha Prashanth (Sun Microsystems-India); Radha Ratnaparkhi (IBM); Claudia Galvan (Microsoft); Bev Crair (Quantum, formerly Sun); Meenakshi Kaul-Basu (Sun Microsystems); Lydia Ash (Google) – photo from Meena

Globalization has forced companies to create new processes to empower distributed teams to collaborate. It could mean that individuals have to travel for longer periods of time across the globe, work at odd hours, and work from home or make other adjustments to accommodate a new working lifestyle.

Panelists will discuss and give their perspective on the topic, impact on women, and the technologies and strategies they use to maintain balance.”

This panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2009, run by my colleague Meena, was one of the few sessions at GHC09 that I felt addressed the  practical needs of women currently in technology management: all of the panelists manage geographically-dispersed teams (which are increasingly the norm in high tech).

One theme that came up over and over was the importance of face-to-face interaction, especially for the managers, who therefore end up traveling a lot. Phone conferences, email, and instant messaging simply can’t build relationships in the same way. As Bev Crair said, even for teams that know each other and have worked together for a long time, “Trust breaks down after six weeks of not seeing someone.” I’ve seen this in my own experience of working remotely.

Bev added that relationships can be supported by video conferencing: “We use WebEx a lot.”

But she and others also felt strongly enough about the importance of in-person interaction that (during her time at Sun) she created a rotation program for Sun’s engineering office in China. US-based test engineers visited for three weeks at a time (the company had rented four apartments) and did their regular jobs from Beijing while also mentoring/training Chinese colleagues.

This taught the local engineers Sun standards for engineering, but it also helped the US-based engineers understand local problems so they could better represent their Chinese counterparts when they got back to US.

Kristin Rozier, NASA: “We put a lot of emphasis on face to face” within her small US reearch group. They host an annual symposium where everyone can get together.

Lydia Ash, Google: “As a manager I had to realize that bad news travels much faster than good news.” Solution: over-commuicate rather than under-.

Claudia Galvan, Microsoft: “You need to let go of driving everything from HQ and let the remote sites drive, too.”

Work-Life Balance

Bev Crair: “Working globally means there’s not a hard line between work and home life. I take time for myself and my daughter n the middle of the day. I have to set aside that time.”

Women are about connectedness, so why try to separate work from life?

Sumitha lives with her in-laws (a traditional arrangement in India), who are very supportive of her family and career. She says: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. You figure it out as you go along. There’s no perfect situation. You have to prioritize. And don’t feel guilty about anything.”

Radha agrees that work-life balance is a myth. But there can be harmony if you have control and a support system (family, friends, community).

Two of the panelists’ daughters wouldn’t want their mothers’ jobs: “Too many phone calls.” One thinks that being an engineer is cool because you get to go to all these exotic places.

Women often end up taking care of family stuff (babies, aging parents), which leads to breaks in their career histories. Being able to “integrate” the personal with the professional is critical. Remote work allows people to deal with things e.g. cultural observations (such as the rituals around a death in the family) while still working. We need to have the tools and processes in place for this to happen.

Question from the audience: All this flexibility needs company support. How real is that?

Answer: Even the [US] federal government offers time off for family situations, e.g. up to 12 weeks to help a parent after surgery.

Tools and Pitfalls

It was mentioned that video conferencing can feel weird because of lag times (at long distance) and the fact that it doesn’t provide a sense of eye contact, because the webcam lens is not where you direct your eyes when you’re looking at the video you’re receiving. “Everyone looks stupid in a videoconference.”

Bev said they have extra monitors which display video streams from other offices, to maintain a sense of presence even when not actively participating in video conferences.

Lacking funding or tools for any of this, one manager said that her group put up photographs of their remote colleagues to enhance a feeling of connectedness. Every little thing can help.

Virtual environments (such as Google Lively and Second Life) can become informal and unprofessional very quickly. It’s important to remember that professional presence matters even in these virtual worlds. In video conferencing, watch out for bedhead and undone laundry in the background; what is the message you are sending by your video presence?

Use tool such as Writely to collaborate in real time on documents.

On the whole, a very useful panel, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from these women.

The First Colorado Front Range Girl Geek Dinner: Jai Ho!

The first Colorado Front Range Girl Geek Dinner was held on Thursday, March 5th, on Sun’s Broomfield campus. More than 80 people attended, only one of whom was (a very brave) male.

Sun sponsored this first one with food, drink, and venue. There was plenty of interest from other individuals and businesses in helping with the next (contact me to be put in touch with the now-being-formed committee). Thanks to the many who helped spread the news (including Jeremy Tanner, who helped get the word out to startups and other smaller businesses). We had at least 80 attendees (probably more – I don’t think we caught quite everybody at the registration desk), and were in touch with several dozen more who couldn’t attend on this particular date but definitely want to participate.

With this kind of momentum, I think the next CO FR GGD can take place in about two months (but I’ll be leaving it up to others to organize that one as I expect to travel heavily from now through July).

The atmosphere in the room was electric and inspiring, and I hope was encouraging for those who had recently lost their jobs (or fear they might soon). Women helping women can be a powerful resource in the workplace, and that’s what Girl Geek Dinners are about.

Colorado GGD

^ listening to Linda, the “voice from on high”

Linda Skrocki put together a presentation which I ended up delivering (with her participating by phone) because she was home with a flu and didn’t want to infect the rest of us.

Our aim was to showcase Sun’s many activities in social media, in order to illustrate how other companies and individuals can use social media to enhance their own brands, win friends and clients, and influence people. Social media is important in just about any job these days, so I hope the information was useful to other women wanting to add to their work skills.

I noted a lot of interest in the room at the idea of managing one’s personal brand and identity online; that might be a topic for a future talk. One attendee wanted to talk more with us about Sun’s “radical transparency” in relation to a project she’s working on. And it seems that people want to hear more about videoblogging, which of course I’m happy to discuss anytime.

Colorado GGD

My only (personal) disappointment was that I was so busy running the show, I had very little time to talk with anybody – and there was a roomful of fascinating women I’d love to know more about. I look forward to making up for that next time!

Thanks to Kristin Tulp of Level3, we had TV coverage, with a segment by Jodi Brooks of CBS4 news (Denver) on Friday night. As part of a series on “Beating the Recession,” the piece talked about how we “Geek Girls” are rallying together to help ourselves and each other in a hard job market. I don’t know whether the segment will be posted on their site. Perhaps if enough of us ask them…? Here’s the transcript: ‘Geek Girls’ Gather In Broomfield For Networking

other coverage:

In case you’re wondering about the title: Jai Ho is the Oscar-winning song from the end titles of  Slumdog Millionaire. The song’s composer, A.R. Rahman, says that Jai Ho translates as “May victory be yours.” Which seems to me a fitting benediction for my fellow girl geeks.

Thrilled in Boulder

Last Saturday I attended a podCamp in Boulder, similar to camps I’ve attended in Italy. The topics were mostly techie (of course), and it was stimulating to talk with other folks doing social media et al, and get a fresh perspective.

But the most fun part was at the end, when we learned part of the dance moves to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. (I was participating at first – you can find footage of me if you look hard – but had to duck out to meet a friend and bring her back.)