I’ve been to loads of women in tech conferences (indeed, I organise the UK’s main conference for women computing undergrads). I’ve also been to loads of ordinary conferences, both academic and industrial.
I’m involved in recruitment and careers support for graduates. And I’m kind of opinionated. So when I was asked to write a blog post I thought I’d try and distill some advice, from careers panel sessions, how-to events, recruiters, and my experience of nearly 20 years in the technical world.
5 tips for men in tech: how to make things more inclusive
- Think about your language and your examples. Don’t, when commenting on code, assume all future readers are going to be guys. Don’t, when addressing a room full of techies, joke about programmers needing to get “a girlfriend”. If you need an example image, try to find one that isn’t from pornography. And... this really shouldn’t need saying... but don’t make rape jokes in conference presentations. I’ve personally seen all of these things in 2014, and we’re not even halfway through the year yet. Most women in tech have developed fairly thick skins about this stuff, but you know what? We shouldn’t need to. Using non-gendered language is easy. Choosing examples which don’t involve semi-naked women is easy. These are tiny, baby steps that everyone can make, which will help the profession as a whole become more inclusive.
- If women in tech are telling you there’s a problem, then listen. I lose track of the number of times I’ve seen someone called out on some kind of sexist behaviour (from occasional use of gendered language to outright sexual harassment) only for the person calling out the sexism to get shouted down by a gaggle of self-righteous internet commenters. Conferences should have a code of conduct, with clear instructions on what to do if sexist or harassing behaviour occurs - there’s a good example code here: http://confcodeofconduct.com/ . But on a smaller scale? Just listen to what women in tech are saying.
- Realise, when you’re dealing with women in tech, that they’ve probably experienced some form of sexism recently (and realise that an attack on sexism in technology is not an attack on men). It’s nothing special about tech. It’s structural - it’s been shown mathematically, that in gender imbalanced groups, even if both genders are equally biased, the minority gender is going to be on the receiving end of more gender-biased behaviour. If we assume for the sake of argument that 20% of men are nasty to women (sexist), and 20% of women are nasty to men in return, then, given the imbalance between the sexes in our field (let’s call it 20%), you can mathematically prove that the women will be on the receiving end of 16 times as many sexist remarks. This argument has been called The Petrie Multiplier, and it holds in general: with a gender ratio of 1:r, women will receive r2 times as many sexist remarks as men. What the Petrie multiplier tells us is that even without signing up to ideas of privilege or intersectionality or any of the other tenets of modern feminism, we can expect an uneven balance of bias within jobs where there’s a major gender imbalance. I suspect that male primary school teachers have a hard time for similar reasons.
- Realise that getting more women in tech is good for all in tech. Working in a masculine monoculture isn’t good for guys either. Sure, you might like working in an office where there’s a Playboy centrefold on the wall, but wouldn’t you rather have some actual women to talk to? On top of this, it’s been shown that diverse teams perform better. It’s not that we women in tech have got magic business ovaries or anything, it’s just that teams perform better when there’s a range of opinions feeding in to the decision making process. This is not some kind of left-wing conclusion drawn by a collective of sociologists wearing dungarees, it’s business.
- Understand the power of positive role models and examples. For the women in tech that are around, it’s great to see other women in tech doing well and getting a platform. There might only be a small percentage of women in tech, but we are here, and we’re more than 1 in 10. So if you’re putting on a conference or speaker program and 17% of your speakers are women, then you’re making a good start. If you’ve got an all-male lineup… then ask yourself why this might be, and try to find a woman or two to contribute. We’re not that hard to find - and if you’re stuck, ask BCSWomen.
5 tips for women in tech: how to help yourself get on
- Understand the power of positive role models and examples. This can work for you, it can help your confidence to find some women in tech you can look up to. Get yourself a mentor, go to events with women speakers like the BCS Karen Spärck Jones lecture, read writing by senior women in tech like Sheryl Sandberg. You won’t agree with everything they say, but that’s fine: just listen to and read to some awesome women. It’s also something you can do to support others, by getting yourself out there. Help other women in tech, put yourself forward as a speaker, sign up as a mentor, visit schools, make yourself heard. It’s hard to start off with, but it can really pay off: apart from the feel-good factor you get from helping out others, it’ll make your CV look fab.
- There are as many ways to be a woman in tech as there are to be a man in tech. You don’t have to dress like a guy and go out drinking with the lads... unless you want to. Similarly, you don’t have to wear makeup and be perfectly turned out every day... unless you want to. Guys will comment on what you look like, as will women, but at the end of the day computing is about getting the job done. Indeed, I suspect computing is more forgiving of sartorial eccentricities than many other professions.
- Ask for a pay rise. The gender pay gap in IT is really quite major; and research suggests it is because men ask for a raise, but women wait to be offered. So ask. What’s the worst that can happen?
- One day, you’ll wake up, look around yourself, and think “How did I get here?” Just like in the song. This has got a name (“Impostor Syndrome”) and the thing to realise is that everyone gets it from time to time. It seems as though women get it more than men, and those who’re not in the majority gender for their job seem to get it more. So women in tech get a double-whammy. You can get over it though: if you have a mentor, chat with them about it, or talk to colleagues, or failing that read around the issue. There are all sorts of books and blogs about beating the impostor syndrome.
- Remember Hanlon’s Razor. “Never assume malice where incompetence is a fair explanation”. It’s easy to assume the worst, particularly if you’re (say) at a conference and you’ve had three men in a row assume you’re in sales, just because you’re a woman. But try to find the good side: if a guy says something stupid or sexist, chances are they’re just not thinking stuff through, and they’re not deliberately trying to put you down. Give them a second chance, try to make a joke of it, and if they persist? Well you know who to avoid at the conference reception.
Hannah is a lecturer in computer science at Aberystwyth University, where she does research into computer vision and robotics whilst trying to teach undergraduates about web programming. She has a BSc, MA and PhD in artificial intelligence related subjects, all from the University of Leeds. She has held postdoctoral researcher positions at Leeds, Kingston, and Grenoble looking into computer vision, trying to build computer systems that can see like we do.
She believes that computer science is an interesting and fun field for work, study and play... but that we don't often manage to get that across, particularly to women and girls. So she joined BCSWomen in 2006 and has been on the committee ever since (and was deputy chair 2008-2012). She started the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium, the UK's main undergraduate conference for women students, in 2008, and continues to chair this event.
The colloquium moves around the country and this year was in Reading University, with around 120 registrants. Inspiring the next generation is also important, so she also spends a lot of time doing workshops with school kids and their families, and has run outreach computer science sessions involving artificial intelligence, wearable computing, arduino, robotics, scratch, video processing and mobile app development.