Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Two things I saw at WWDC that I should have done something about

There were two things I witnessed on the first day at WWDC that made me think, “and we wonder why there are so few women here.”

To be clear at the outset, I don’t blame Apple — they likely had little to do with either episode. In fact, wasn’t it inspiring to see so many awesome women presenting at the keynote? I would guess that WWDC is one of the more inclusive environments when it comes to tech conferences.

No, I blame myself. In both cases, there was probably something I (and any of the hundreds of fellow attendees who also witnessed these things) could have done. I direct this note toward my future self and anyone else who cares about making women feel more welcome in our ridiculously male-dominated industry.

And to be clear, I’m no activist. These are some of the first words I’ve written about gender issues. I’ll probably even say something misinformed or something that betrays my own gender bias — I’m not used to this. I’m a pretty typical introverted geek who hates confrontation and likes to stay in his shell. That’s part of the problem.

Episode 1

I was in line for the much anticipated keynote. Stoked to be there. Thousands of developers (mostly men) filled the huge Convention Center hall. But something caught my eye a little ways ahead of me. I saw a young woman who, like me, got up super early to catch a good seat at the keynote. Next to her, a man — probably twice her age or more — seemed extremely keen on conversing with her.

It struck me as a little off (it seemed like they just met in line versus being old friends) but she also appeared pretty interested in the conversation. At first.

As the line moved and the woman went from one side of the line to the center, the dude stuck with her. Okay, cool — two people became friends in line. But reading the body language, this fast growing friendship appeared one sided. The woman’s smiles turned more and more to looks of anxiety or discomfort. At the same time, the older man leaned in closer and closer. No touching or anything, just uncomfortably close for a couple people who just met. He also seemed to be doing almost all the talking.

For a brief moment the thought crossed my mind — maybe I should do something. But the wave of counter arguments immediately pummeled my mind.

  • What if they really are old friends? That would be awkward.
  • What if I’m just misreading the body language and she is actually really learning some valuable wisdom from this guy. Maybe she is having a good time.
  • If I force my way through the crowd, people will think I’m trying to skip the line. That doesn’t look good.
  • I don’t want her to think I’m trying to be some kind of knight in shining armor.
  • No one else seems to see any issue and lots of people are closer and have better context than I do — I can’t even hear what they are talking about!
  • What would I even say? I’m so bad at confrontation!
  • And the list goes on.

In hindsight, I probably could have gone up and privately checked with the young woman to make sure she was comfortable but I didn’t get far enough into my thought process to even think about how I would execute that tactfully. I ended up doing nothing but watch as they exchanged contact information and sat together in the keynote.

Now, I’m sure this kind of thing happens all the time. My story probably didn’t shock anyone. Or maybe it was all in my head — I could just be terrible at reading these things. But if there was even a chance that I could have done something that would have allowed this young developer to enjoy the line and keynote more, without any discomfort, and want to come back again next year — I should have taken that chance. That’s on me.

Episode 2

I saw a number of tweets and articles yesterday lamenting the fact that there was almost never any women’s line at the bathroom (because of how few women are here) while the men’s line, at times, was remarkably long. This was true.

However, something I didn’t see anyone tweet about was even more disheartening. That is, at two points when I went to use the bathroom, there was a staff member there — I think she might have been convention center staff but not sure. I have no idea if this staff member was acting on her own or not but she was literally welcoming men into the women’s bathroom. What a perfect way to show women that they belong here! I mean, what on earth?

So yeah, I was pretty upset about this. I was thinking about telling that staff member — hey, the men are just fine. We can wait a few minutes to use the bathroom. Women have to wait for the bathroom all the time — we can do it too! Though I didn’t think about this at the time, I could have easily pointed the situation out to one of the many orange shirted Apple staff members hovering around (maybe somebody did at some point). But I didn’t. I feel terrible about it. Who am I to be upset if I don’t get out of my introverted comfort zone and do something about it?

As I was reminded when sharing a draft of this note with some of my female colleagues (thanks Molly!), there is a word for these things: microaggressions. They are often small, not overt, and hard to spot but they add up to creating environments where women (and other under-represented groups) don’t feel welcomed. We need to fix this.

But if everyone expects someone else to do it, no one will. As I said, this note was written to myself and to anyone else who has good intentions but is too afraid to act when something is off. Any individual can’t single handedly fix what’s wrong with this industry but if we don’t each do our small part, how can we expect the cultural change this industry needs? I’ll try to do better next time. Hopefully we all will.