I have a confession to make. In the past, I have mentally dismissed some of the women that I’ve worked with that hold non-technical roles. I’m working on doing better, because I’ve come to realize how hurtful it is. It’s hurtful to people, it’s hurtful to relationships, and it’s hurtful to the advancement of gender equality in tech companies.
I stopped and took stock after a friend recently called me out on having my nose in the air about someone I used to work with. I can’t remember what I said, and I know I hadn’t meant it unkindly, but it sure came out that way. (I think I both hate and love that he reliably calls me out on this kind of thing, but that’s a topic for a different day.)
I come from a software development background. I have a bachelor of Computer Science from the University of New Brunswick, and I came to Waterloo to do a master’s in software architecture at UW. There’s a whole other post I could write about how I got to exactly where I am, but suffice it to say that I spent 8 years in development, before I basically got bored and decided to try something new. I’ve now been in a “product” role at 2 different companies over the course of a few years, and I’ve learned a few things.
You don’t have to be a developer to be a role model or mentor to other women in tech.
We recently had a team building/employee appreciation event, where we each had a sheet of paper tied to our backs, and people wrote notes of appreciation on each other. Several co-workers wrote nice things about me being a role model. One of them actually wrote: “Great role model. Glad to have experienced ladies @ Tulip.” I don’t share this to brag about being a role model, but to acknowledge that until I’d read that, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was. It turns out that you don’t have to be a developer to be a role model or a mentor to other women in tech.
The experience of being a “woman in tech” isn’t limited to people in so-called technical roles.
Women who work for technology companies generally spend their days surrounded by men, regardless of their role, and it’s frequently men in more senior roles. We’re working for men, we’re interviewing men, we’re hiring them, we’re escorting them from the building after firing them, we’re eating lunch with them, we’re traveling with them, we’re talking to customers and end-users with them, we’re managing their projects, products, and releases. We’re trying to advance our careers while avoiding the minefield that is men like Mike Pence.
Those of us who aren’t officially in highly technical roles or that don’t have highly technical backgrounds probably spend most days feeling even more out of place than those of us who are more technically inclined. These less technical women still have to interact with the rest of us and the rest of the company. Someone can be in a part of the organization that has a slightly better ratio than 2 women for every 20 men and still have the experience of being a woman in tech. Even if they’re the people organizing the event and setting up the booths, they can laugh with the rest of us over the unique joys of walking past a giant line outside of the men’s washroom to use the women’s facilities during a break between the keynotes at a conference.
Judging someone by their title or appearance is bullshit, even if it’s yourself you’re judging.
I had a sales clerk at a Bell store once try to caution me about purchasing an Android phone. The exact quote was, “Are you sure? That’s a really techie phone.” My husband took one look at the guy and said, “I think she can handle it.” I had a different sales clerk once walk up to my then-boyfriend and I, while I was shopping for a new computer, and literally say “Can I help you, sir?”
A friend of mine was once told she wasn’t technical enough to join a women in tech mentorship program. Of anyone I’ve ever met, she’s the quickest to pick up a concept, explain it back in plain English, and she’s a really thoughtful sounding board for all types of topics. Such a missed opportunity. A designer recently told me she’d heard something along the lines of, “Oh, you don’t have to worry, at least you’re in a team with more women.”
When I first started my career as a developer, I was talking with one of my new co-workers and actually remember saying to him, “I don’t think I’d be taken seriously if I dressed up.” It’s taken me a long time and a lot of confidence in my skills & experience to get to the point where I’m finally embracing the fact that I do occasionally enjoy wearing heels, skirts, and funky earrings. Co-workers with amazing style help a lot with this. My current office has everything from intentionally clashing tie & button-up shirt combos to flouncy skirts (with pockets!!!) worn with boots & colourful leggings to, yes, the “standard” nerdy shirt and jeans. I love it.
I need to stop judging both myself and anyone around me. The woman I pass in the hall who looks so put together? Ask her where she got the dress, or the shoes, or how she learned to look so polished but comfortable. Don’t assume she’s a “girly girl” and not worth getting to know. I’m working on this. I don’t need to wear the uniform or fit a mold to get some sort of magic pass to qualify as a “woman in tech.”
Leadership requires you to speak up when you see something wrong.
A couple of years ago, my former employer aired a video at a user conference, showing off a new tool the company had acquired. This tool was supposed to make it easy to create a dashboard by dragging and dropping widgets. The video showed a “back end developer” making the supporting infrastructure, before he handed it off to a woman, who was literally referred to in the video as “not a hard core Java programmer” to put together the dashboard. I was bothered by this totally tone deaf missed opportunity, and I said so to a couple of coworkers. I talked about submitting a comment to our (female) EVP of engineering, through an anonymous portal, and my friends encouraged me to sign my name to the feedback in an email. I did. I got a nice response, thanking me for speaking up with a reminder that we needed to do better, and a promise that the input would be shared with the executive & marketing team.
I don’t know if anything meaningful ever came of that feedback, but I was reminded of that incident recently, when another opportunity to speak up presented itself. I don’t know if anything will come of the more recent event, either, but I’m not going to stop speaking up. Little things can become big things, if they aren’t stopped in their tracks. Maybe I’m the overly sensitive feminist snowflake who’s always complaining, but I think I can handle that label, if it makes for a better company culture and a better experience for other women in tech.
To all the women in tech that I’ve had the honour to work with, whether you’re an office manager, user experience designer, visual designer, marketer, human resources leader, trainer, technical support representative, project manager, team lead, technical writer, salesperson, or you handle deliveries and answer the phone: Thank you for everything you do as a woman in tech.