Inequality, Choices, and Hitting a Wall

Rikki Endsley

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Sep 08, 2010 GMT
Rikki Kite

Have you read the Evil HR Lady's article called Illegal Gender Discrimination in Tech? Hardly.? Suzanne Lucas, a.k.a. Evil HR Lady, says, “Everyone wrings their hands and frets, 'what can we do about the inequality in X?' Well, first stop and see if people are making different choices.”

Ok, so far I can follow what Lucas is saying. I've reevaluated my own choices over the years and plugged holes where I found them. I've learned the art of salary negotiation, am improving my self-promotion prowess, and am known to be aggressively assertive. But then she loses me... and annoys me.

Lucas writes, “I know, I know, there is a presumption of discrimination because women are so down-trodden that that they think they wouldn’t be able to succeed because all those men who control the money wouldn’t let them anyway, so why try?”

Where exactly is this presumption of discrimination? Did she say 'down trodden'? Really, Lucas does a fabulous job of illustrating what so many of us think keeps women out of tech careers – they don't feel welcome.

She goes on to say, “Are we as a gender so stupid? And if we are, then we don’t deserve to succeed anyway.”

People, I beg you not to listen to her! I like that we are consciously headed in a more inviting, friendly, professional, cooperative, encouraging direction!

I don't think most of us who work in technology bellyache about "illegal gender discrimination" keeping women out of tech careers. In fact, I think many of us agree that women are discouraged rather than discriminated against.

But wait, Lucas agrees that it's not illegal gender discrimination keeping women out of technology. She says, “It’s not that they are discriminating against women. It’s that women are choosing not to enter into the field in the first place, and those that do choose to enter in are so busy they can’t speak at every conference.” She doesn't explain WHY women don't choose to enter tech careers, and I find it hard to believe that women are just too busy to speak at events. Is she saying that we're simply busier than our male counterparts?

The Ohio LinuxFest organizers don't think women are too busy for events, either. In fact, they have a great lineup of women speaking this weekend because they enthusiastically encouraged women to submit talks. Other groups have been encouraging by taking steps to provide childcare at events (and if you don't think childcare issues keep women out of events, then you haven't heard me on the phone juggling rides home from school for my teenager in Kansas from my OSCON booth in Portland).

Lucas also says that when people say they want to “raise awareness,” it's “code speak for 'whine about unfairness rather than doing something.'” Again, I respectfully disagree. I started speaking at events because women and men in technology encouraged me to do so. Women have submitted articles to our magazines for the first time because we've asked them to do so. Had Lucas been my mentor, I don't think I'd be submitting or reviewing talks for industry events, and had we waited for every woman to share her knowledge with our readers, we would have missed out on a lot of excellent tech articles.

I agree that “whining” about the lack of women in technology won't do anything to increase the numbers; however, I've been listening for years and I still don't think there's some deafening roar – or really even a quiet murmur – of whining around here. Instead, I see women and men in technology clearing out the uninviting paths and reaching out to help encourage women.

Sometimes “doing something” still doesn't make a difference. For example, in May 2009, I attended a local user group meeting at the Garmin headquarters in Olathe, Kansas. When I arrived, I sat in the lobby on a couch with two men who were also there for the meeting. The human resources representative, who I'll call Non-Evil HR Lady (NEHRL, for short), came to escort us to the meeting room. NEHRL walked up to us on the couch and said, “Who's here for the meeting?” The three of us held up our hands, and then she said, “Just you two?” The two men looked at me and pointed out to NEHRL that I was also attending the meeting.

During the meeting I did a head count in the room and realized that I was the lone female attendee out of about 60 people. (There were a few other females standing in the back of the room, mostly speakers or Garmin employees.) I wasn't particularly uncomfortable because I knew other attendees and I'm used to being in the minority at many events, but had I been a younger woman just starting my career in IT, I would have felt like the one thing that's not like the others.

NEHRL spoke briefly at the meeting and told us that they had about 60 job openings at Garmin that she needed to fill.

Later that day, I decided to “do something,” so I sent this email to NEHRL:

“I attended the KULUA meeting today at Garmin. Thanks so much for hosting the event there. What an amazing facility! I wanted to talk to you after the meeting but I had to rush back to work. I couldn't help but notice the scarcity of women at the meeting, which made me wonder about women working in technology positions at Garmin. Do you know about what percentage of the people in tech roles are women? Are you doing anything to help recruit women to technical roles at Garmin? I'd love to talk to you more about this topic because it's something I've researched quite a bit and write about on my blog: We have a magazine going to print on Tuesday, but later in the week or the following week I'd have some time to meet if you think you could fit it into the schedule.”

Insert crickets chirping in response.

One week later, I re-sent the message, adding this bit:
“I was just checking -- did you get this message?”

Insert more crickets chirping in response.

Five days later, I forwarded my email to the “media relations” email address for Garmin, and added this:

“I think I have the wrong email address for [NEHRL]. Can you please forward my messages or send me the correct email to reach her?”

Insert cicadas drowning out the sound of crickets chirping.

I had visions of helping publicize the great job opportunities at Garmin, but I never did hear back from anyone. Maybe I could have done more. Or maybe they just didn't want to encourage any women to apply.

Of course, I don't take non-answers for an answer, so I tried to encourage women to apply anyway:

“...Our local group, KULUA (Kansas Unix & Linux User Association), meets every couple of months, but the meetings I've been to were incredibly informative and a great way to meet people with similar interests. The most recent meeting was held at the Garmin headquarters and included speakers from Garmin (who's recruiting, by the way, and there was a serious shortage of women in that meeting so check out their job postings) and Tallgrass Technologies, and Frank Wiles discussed the Basics of PostgreSQL...”.

Evil HR Lady's article wasn't very encouraging. Do something – get out there and encourage someone today.

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