From Cat Fights to Having It All: Perception vs. Reality For Women In Tech
It’s not an easy road when you decide to publicly declare yourself a shift disturber and a professional elephant hunter. I can tell you from personal experience that people make all kinds of assumptions about who you are, or how you work before they get to know you or have any experience with you. In my day to day, I call this the perception of me, aka KSD, and the reality of KSD.
Perception: From all the times friends and acquaintances have posted swearing themed memes and t-shirts on my Facebook page, you’d think that I live to swear. Swearing is part of my every day, and I don’t know how have a conversation without swearing, either in professional or personal situations.
Reality: Yes, I swear. In fact, I love it at times. There is nothing like a perfectly placed ‘fuck’ to get your point across. But, unless I’ve an established rapport with someone professionally, or I know you well personally, I don’t walk around dropping, or posting on social, f-bombs indiscriminately. When they do start to appear, even my kids know, I’m pissed. Still, that’s not who I am all the time. No one’s like any one thing all the time.
Perception: I talk. I’m extroverted. I’m not shy and I have (mostly well informed) opinions. When I tell people that I’ve done a 10 day silent meditation course, the typical first response is, “YOU not talking for 10 days, I can’t imagine!”
Reality: I’ve worked remotely for large and small organizations off and on for 12+ years. I revel silence. In my home office, there is dead silence from the moment I’m at my desk to the moment my twin boys come bounding up the stairs to try to surprise me (even though I heard the main floor door open while sitting in the attic). No radio, no chatter, just…silence. (For the record, the silence is the easy part; sitting in your own thoughts for upwards of 11 hours a day…that’s the hard part.)
Perceptions vs. Identity
These are just two examples of how people perceive me, either online or in real life. Some of it fostered through peripheral observation, some direct. Mostly fleeting. And these variations between perception and reality are pretty innocuous to my every day. Annoying, and disappointing, certainly, but still innocuous.
“I can take steps to change how people perceive me…”
Here’s the rub, though; I can change my monikers, or how much I swear, or even whom I associate with. I can take steps to change how people perceive me before they meet me, but what I can’t change is the fact that I’m a woman. And no matter what I do, no matter what we do in certain circumstances, nothing will change how some people choose to act towards us, treat us, make assumptions about us or regard us.
“…what I can’t change is the fact that I’m a woman.”
This is where the conflict between perception and reality is most dangerous. Women, and particularly women in leadership and tech, are challenged every single day with this conflict. Some of these conflicts can seem superfluous and unimportant.
Some of these conflicts are degrading, debilitating and downright dangerous.
Women in Leadership
Many years ago, while I was working at TELUS Communications, I attended a morning breakfast panel with, at the time, three of the company’s top executive women: Karen Radford, Judy Shuttleworth and Janet Yale.
I started to quickly realize that this was not going to be a typical women in leadership session with the standard “You can do it!” messaging or pink-washing that tends to come from such ‘leadership light’ sessions about ‘women having it all’ and the necessary sacrifices, hardships and agonizing choices they’ve had to make. What set this event apart from others that I’ve attended about was how frank all three of these exceptionally successful and driven women were in sharing their career paths and choices with us. They were unapologetic, insightful, and candid.
Perception: successful executive women struggle with what they give up for their careers.
Reality: not Janet Yale. She and her husband agreed early on about the direction their home lives and careers would take. She joked that day that her kids ‘scream when I walk into the kitchen’ and shared that she’s never been to one of her kids’ hockey games. Janet didn’t struggle with this choice, nor did she mince words. She made the choice, along with her husband, that this would be the dynamic of their family, and she wasn’t apologetic about it, at all. ‘You can’t have it all,” she said. Janet runs marathons, like she runs national organizations. Like a boss.
Reality Check: women choose different paths all the time. What works for one, does not work for another. Neither is wrong. Neither is right. It’s entirely subjective.
Women in Business
After the panel conversation, the executives asked for questions from the floor. One young woman in her early 20s stood and said:
“You know, I find it really hard to work with women; it’s like they’re really jealous and catty.”
Almost reflexively, I whispered “bullshit,” under my breath.
Then, almost immediately, I heard Karen Radford say:
“You know what? That’s bullshit!”
Perception: women are the worst to work with, and are jealous and catty.
Reality: Sometimes we are that woman. Most times, we’re not. Most women are immensely supportive, giving and collaborative. Those mean girls (whom absolutely do show up in both the Women in Tech movement, and every other single industry out there too), they’re really just assholes first, and women second.
Reality check: according to Catalyst, when leaders act as mentors and “pay it forward,” the end result is greater advancement and higher compensation for everyone. Not only that, but those who have been mentored are more likely to continue that trend themselves. Catalyst has shown through their research that women, indeed, are actively developing other women; they’re actively debunking the “Queen Bee” myth and it seems as though Karen Radford was right all along.
Women in Tech
There have been two particularly telling stories hitting the headlines in the past couple of weeks, and they’re both about diversity in tech.
Perception: you don’t have to search far to see a slew of stories and comments, mostly from white men, who talk about wanting to improve their diversity numbers within their companies (regarding both gender and race), but that they don’t “want to lower the bar” to do so.
Reality: Those statements are ladened with such incredible bias and misinformation. I’ll leave it to @shaft who wrote brilliantly about why diversity is difficult to educate us further based on his personal observations and experiences while at Twitter, and will also add that increasing diversity certainly does not mean ‘lowering the bar’ in any way.
A company that actively incorporates diversity into its core makeup turned around and just won startup of the year at The Crunchies, Techcrunch’s annual fête of the startup. That company is Slack.
While this headline has been carried widely this past week, and it’s also had its detractors, there is no denying that there is a bias when it comes to evaluating women’s work, inside and outside of tech.
Bias is an incredibly hard thing to recognize in ourselves, and even harder to challenge when we’re willfully ignorant to it. Critical thinking is more than a valued work skill. It’s now an imperative if we’re, and I do mean WE, are going to break down the barriers for everyone, which ultimately will improve our organizations, our working days, and the caliber of products and services that we spend so many of our hours working on, or working with.
Recognizing bias, especially in ourselves, is the first step to breaking down these barriers. The next is to see through those biased perceptions and be able to see reality, of both others and ourselves.