Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Are We Creating Unfair Expectations of Women in Technology?

I was recently in a conversation where someone pointed out that as a woman, if I really care about changing the gender ratio, I can have the most influence and overall impact at a company that has problems in that area. He pointed out that if no women are willing to go to those companies, it will never be possible to change things there. It got me thinking about the whole thing.

I wondered: Are we expecting too much from our women in technology?

Now, just to be clear, I care deeply about changing the gender ratio in tech and have done a lot in the area, including helping to start Box’s Women in Tech group. I believe that a more diverse workforce will make us better able to build amazing technologies and build stronger companies that make better decisions and the financial numbers back that. I also believe that there’s no reason that good jobs such as the one I enjoy or even upper level management and leadership positions shouldn’t be equally available and attainable to women as they are to men. That said, when this person brought up the point, I deeply recoiled. I found myself having to take a step back to think about why I was having the reaction that I was. I realized that mixed into what he was saying was an expectation that I was willing and eager to put advancing the gender ratio ahead of almost everything else — above my career and even ahead of my happiness. I’m not sure that’s a reasonable expectation to make of anyone. Just because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t automatically have an added expectation on my shoulders that I need to try to make things better for my gender. If that happens to be something I care about, great, but it should still be my choice to care, my choice to try to move the needle, my choice about what things I do to move that needle.

Amy Nguyen had a great post focusing on one aspect of this. As she put it, “You shouldn’t have to be […] really anything besides interested in tech to go into this industry.” Her point was that because women are the minority we sometimes push the few of us who are here to be perfect, because that seems like the easiest way to combat gender stereotypes. We promote the idea that all women in our industry need to become role models and move to the top of the leadership hierarchy. This is also an unfair expectation. While I want each and every one of us to do as well as we can, we’re still just people. While Amy focuses a lot on the expectation of perfection, I think we also place a lot of other unfair expectations on the women in our field in terms of what we care about, where we work and how we spend our time and energy.

What other expectations do we have?

Maybe that discussion and Amy Nguyen’s post caused me to be extra attuned to things, but since then, I started noticing other ways in which we often have extra expectations of women even while having the best of intentions. Many of these things are being suggested and perpetuated by women and in many cases, I’m as guilty as anyone. I’m talking about a variety of things from an expectation to care about or want to be involved in a Women in Tech group or the added time it takes to attend that group’s activities. I’m talking about attending, speaking at or supporting all of the external women in tech meetups, networking events and dinners. I’m talking about volunteering to help run the amazing internal and external events that we do to support each other and to promote diversity. I’m talking about conducting more interviews to make our interview panels diverse. While all of these are great activities and events, they also all take extra time and energy and in almost all cases, they aren’t included in our performance evaluations or at least not in a way proportional to the amount of time they take. They’re not actually part of our jobs, but take time away from us effectively doing our jobs. If these are things we’re passionate about or want to spend time on, great. However, no one else should be putting these expectations on us or question us if we don’t want to be involved. It should be our choice.

The further involved I’ve gotten with increasing diversity in tech, the more I’ve realized that it’s a complex and difficult problem. I’m proud to say that Box now has someone working full time on increasing diversity and inclusion. However, for the size of the problem, that’s still not enough to do as much as we’d like to. The result is that while we’ve made great progress in some areas, we’ve created even loftier goals resulting in an even greater reliance on help from others. Lofty goals are great and a desire to really move the needle is important — I’m as excited as anyone to see this. However, it also results in leaning on people who are largely members of the underrepresented groups for additional work.

It generally follows that the people most aware of issues are the folks facing them and likewise they’re the most impassioned about changing them. These are the people most likely to be willing to help, but that also means that we’re always dipping into the same, already small, pool to do a lot of not-job-related work. I don’t want to stop any of them from helping in any of the ways that they’re passionate about, but we should also be cognizant of the fact that the more we ask them to help, the more it takes away from their tech jobs. Furthermore, no one in any of these groups should be expected to help; it isn’t part of their job.

What is our goal with diversity and inclusion?

We should also ask ourselves what our ultimate end goal is for trying to improve diversity and inclusion. Are we trying to improve the working environment and create a sense of belonging for anyone different from the norm? Are we trying to ensure that underrepresented minorities have an equal chance at success in their roles? Are we trying to increase the number of underrepresented minorities entering tech? Are we trying to keep the people already here? Are we trying to improve our numbers? Are we trying to actually pull in a diversity of opinions and perspectives? While the answer to all of these is likely yes, how we try to solve one of these problems may be counterproductive to solving one of these other goals, so it’s important to know what we care about most and to keep all of our goals in mind rather than get hyper-focused on any single goal. For example, by asking people to spend a lot of time on activities to increase our numbers, we take away from the time they can spend on succeeding in their roles.

I’m not saying that minority groups shouldn’t be involved in diversity and inclusion efforts if we want to be or that we should stop asking those groups for help. Many of us do care about this issue and want to spend time working toward making a difference. However, there is a huge amount of work that could be done — much of it includes amazing ideas and we only have so much bandwidth. Furthermore, each of us can and should decide how much time we want to spend on this issue. We need to be okay with ruthless prioritization. We need to get comfortable with no. Everyone needs to recognize that just because someone doesn’t want to help with a great idea doesn’t mean that they don’t care. We need to even give people the option to not spend time on these things at all. For some people, it’s already tough enough to find their way through as a minority. Just by being here, we’re already showing up and that should be enough. Why should we expect anything else?