Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Our Giants are Female

Here is an idea (and it is not mine!): when we go to technical conferences, let’s encourage other presenters to begin their presentations by talking about a woman in tech history for a few minutes. #OurGiantsAreFemale

"If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." Isaac Newton

Where did the idea come from?

I recently attended a technology conference. I am used to being one of the few women in the room and most of my friends are male. We were hanging out before the conference and I made a comment about getting more women in engineering. My friend started to complain and said

“why more women? why not more people? We need more people in engineering.”

He followed up with some complaints about feminism and thoughts along the lines that he did not appreciate being told he had some sort of privilege for being a white male.

I could have questioned his point of view, or even worse, attacked it! I told him I am an expert on my point of view only, and not so much on his. I assured him that I understood he had worked hard to get where he is at. He comes from a hard-working family and has fought hard for everything he has achieved. I told him how being a woman is like a death by a thousand cuts. There are all sort of subtle messages, comments, and actions that keep adding up. For the most part, we just have learned to tune them out.

I was born and raised in Mexico city, I was told numerous times how I could not be an engineer because I was a woman. My mom’s fear was that I was not going to be able to find a husband! However, if I did not focus on the technical stuff, then I was told I was wasting my talents. There was no way of pleasing them!

When I moved the US, I thought this was going to change. Well, not as much as I thought. I had a boss who would frequently ask me when was I getting pregnant. If he didn’t like how I ran a meeting, he would just tell me to sit down and take notes. When he would talk about the future, he would refer to how all my male team members were going to be in higher positions at the company, while I would be home taking care of kids and on and on and on…

My friend was willing to listen, and he decided, without telling me about it, that he would try to see the conference from my point of view. The technical conference delivered! During the various presentations and keynote addresses, he sent me text messages pointing out things like how there were a lot of white males on that keynote stage, oh, wait, there is a woman… oh, but her role is more administrative or eye candy… Look! they used stock photography to show a female in technology.

The pièce de résistance was a Women’s Leadership Forum during the last day of the conference. Men were welcome to attend, although it was not clear this was the case. The forum happened at the same time as some technical presentations were taking place, including mine. A couple of ladies had approached me the day before to tell me how they saw me as their role model and that they were going to have to skip my presentation in order to attend the Women’s Leadership Forum. My friend was very surprised by this.

In the end, my friend told me

“You are the first woman to actually make me think about this whole issue, so you should be proud. If you can convert me, then you can convert anyone. I’d be more than willing to stand up on stage and admit I thought this whole feminism thing was rubbish until I started thinking about it differently.”

Encouraged by this interaction, I posted in a private forum and gave feedback to the conference organizers. In that post, Shane O’Neill (a.k.a. Intaris) posted a link to a Women in Computing article in Wikipedia. In his words

“The idea that software engineering is a man’s world is actually the most blatant form of mansplaining and gender appropriation. Arguably, the whole caboodle was started by Ada Lovelace, a remarkable woman with a brilliant mathematical mind and the wisdom to see the real-world applications long before the established “gentlemen” of the era had a clue.”

I discussed this further with my friend Steve Watts and he came up with this idea of asking all presenters at software conferences to start their talks by talking about a woman on this list. We would add a hashtag and make it #OurGiantsAreFemale. I thought the idea was a good one, posted about it on twitter and Dinah Davis invited me to write this article in Code Like A Girl.

While I believe exclusive events are still needed, I prefer inclusive events.

I would prefer a technical conference that is more welcoming to women than a technical conference that has a special event for women.

I would prefer that the female leadership panels take place at a keynote of the main event rather than in competition with other worthwhile technical presentations.

The example of the experiment my friend and I conducted encouraged me to believe that if we include everyone in the discussion, we will get to a more inclusive environment.

This is a job for everyone, not just women.

So, what do you say?

Want to join #OurGiantsAreFemale and talk about a female role model at your next presentation?