Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Women in Tech: the silent menace

Women in Business: The Silent Menace

I gave an in-company lecture on International Women's week, and boy, was that an eye-opening experience.

There I was, in a Tech company, with a chart showing the ratio of men to women in technology behind me, and one of the comments I got was a half-jokingly

if we get more women, we are going to have a lot of gossip.

I tried to whisk that away by saying "ok, but you'll also have less conflict because most problems all companies have involve communication, which is something women archetypically are better at". But as I uttered the words, I felt I was betraying myself.

There are many studies about gender and how it affects work relations. I find it most interesting that they show how women who talk more are less liked, and less likely to be promoted, as opposed to talkative men, who are perceived as nicer, and are more likely to get a promotion.

Maybe women do gossip. Maybe they don't. But we know men take 75% of talk time during meetings, and it sounds unfair to imply women talk too much. The penalty for a woman voicing her opinion is very real, and not mere perception. If women are prone to discussing matters secretively, and are talkative among other women, could it be because they feel they can't speak in men's presence?

If this image brings you no memories, check this out.

Don't get me wrong. I am very talkative. I was always scolded for being "too masculine" (which kind of proves my point). The recurrent criticism referred to my taking the lead, wanting to do things my way, interrupting people a lot (yes, I was told that a girl should be polite and listen), wanting to be an astrophysicist, being impatient with others' procrastination and of course — having grown up as a fat, tall, bulky and clumsy child and teen.

A girl must be quiet, poised and know her place.

When I was invited to speak on gender equality, the goal was that the company wouldn’t lose its competitive advantage. They are seeing competitors take a stand on diversity, and they don’t want to be left behind.

We understood that the company culture was on the conservative side, so all women involved agreed it was wise to tread lightly and focus solely on the perks of gender equality for business and employees. There are a lot of studies to support that approach, and I was happy to shower the women in charge with suggestions we could pick from.

We discussed each choice thoroughly, never using terms that could stir true discomfort like feminism, mansplaining, manterruption, bropriating or phrases like "Women's International Day is not giving roses. It's about respect and gender equality." We wanted to have this discussion, of course, but we feared that following that path would backlash terribly on us, so we toned everything down in order to keep everybody calm and happy. We would set an amicable tone during a 40 minute presentation, and then open for questions and reflections.

Imagine you were requested an omelet, but you can’t break any eggs

One day from the event, a string of comments on the March 8th demonstrations emerged in the company, and it was quickly shut down for being too political. Although its content had nothing in common with what we had planned, this prompted a review on the lectures content, and 2/3 of the presentation were cut down.

We were only allowed to speak about the History of women in science and the ratio of Women in Tech. We could also do an overview on the research which supported the idea that gender equality was good for companies. We were also told they "weren't allowing people to voice their opinions" in the previous proposal, so we needed to make it short and open for everybody to speak.

In one single blow, the most important content from the talks was lost. It hardly felt worthwhile anymore.

I kept thinking about an incident I had a few months ago. We had a big problem in a project, and I was under a lot of pressure. At some point, conflict erupted and, feeling betrayed and angry, I bursted in tears. The man I was working with said

I understand you are crying because you are a woman, and women do that.

I was furious and responded, in a very Beatrice "oh that I were a man" demeanor

Yes. If I were a man I would either punch you or have a heart attack.

Photo: Tom Simpson

This moment flashed before my eyes because I was trying to fight back the tears, and I remembered getting the news that, a few weeks ago, this same man had been hospitalized with a near heart attack, probably due to stress. This is what happens to men when there is no gender equality and they feel they can't express their emotions.

This kind of problem was what I had been trying to show all along.

Women are the silent menace to the status quo.

With no outlet for my content in the company, and having received express directions to silencing any kind of debate, my solution was to publish an article on Code Like a Girl with what I had so dutifully prepared. I added some spice, of course. The concepts of mansplaning, bropriation and manterrupting were put back, as well as other ideas that had been cut.

The article had an amazing response. 1.5k views in 3 days and a lot of positive feedback from men. This feedback has put my soul at ease and my impostor syndrome aside.

My faith that there is good to be done for everyone creeps slowly back in.

This tale is both cautionary and a challenge.

For companies: gender inequality is costing you a lot of money. If that is a choice for you, that's ok, as long as you are aware and transparent about it.

For women: know you will probably be censored, even by those apparently advocating for equality. If and when you are, face the censorship as yet another challenge. Keep fighting. Because if you don't, we all lose.

For men: challenge yourselves to question roles of gender, not (only) for women but for yourselves. You are dying earlier, intoxicating yourselves, missing out on making bonds with your children and becoming miserable. No one profits from that.