I’ve always worked in male-dominated fields (first in astrophysics, now in cybertech). While it can feel inherently strange for your industry peer group to be so unrepresentative of the society you live in, I’ve been lucky to not have experienced significant discrimination or harassment. I say lucky because I know other women who have, but that’s a whole other article.
What I cannot fail to be aware of, however, is the pervasive background of assumptions about gender that often go unnoticed or unchallenged. They fall broadly into two categories:
- Women aren’t technical (I’m constantly frustrated by the assumption that I or female colleagues must be in marketing /HR/ some other non-technical role) and
- Even if women can be technical they are still there to be judged on other grounds by male peers (I attended a technical talk in which the male speaker praised a developer’s coding skills but then repeatedly talked about how “hot” she was).
But, hey, there’s no queue for the ladies’ loos at work events so I probably shouldn’t complain, right?!
Individually these incidents could be brushed off, but cumulatively they hinder others’ efforts to address the gender imbalance in tech, such as the inspired initiatives to introduce women to coding. It’s great if we can get more women interested and skilled up, but if their potential employers/colleagues cannot see past their gender to recognise their skills (see (1)), or they feel they are not taken seriously or are objectified at work (see (2)), nothing will change.
So, I try to speak up/register a complaint as appropriate whenever I witness sexism. But still, in the back of my mind there’s always the worry about being seen to be making a fuss over nothing (us ladies are infamous for that, aren’t we?).
Here is where it’d really help if those in the majority – the men – would speak up too, so it’s not only “the woman” complaining. I know many men in tech would never dream of making such comments, but it’s no longer enough just to think “I’d never say that”. We need you to challenge, publicly, those who do. If you don’t already, that is.
And then comes the question, “Am I doing enough?” I often find myself torn over what I, as a “woman in tech”, should be doing to make things better. I’ve realised that taking on specific work to address gender bias more proactively, such as getting involved in event organisation to ensure that codes of conduct are in place, could be quite a time-burden (and one that often uniquely falls upon women). So if I don’t have time to commit, do I have the right to complain?
So, what should women working, or aspiring to work, in tech actually do about gender bias? The truth is, I don’t know (answers on a postcard please). What’s worked for me so far is seeking out a collaborative environment where my contribution is as valued as the men’s and I can focus on doing my job well. I now work in a diverse team in a start-up that values individuals and where, incidentally, one of the founding team members is female. So, don’t lose hope! These places do exist and, what’s more, we can all contribute to their growth.
I think all of us in start-ups have a unique opportunity to reinvent the culture of the tech industry as we go. This goes far beyond reducing the gender imbalance: Women are not the only minority in tech. Let’s build in unbiased hiring from the get go.
Let’s agree to challenge any inappropriate comments when we witness them and constantly re-examine our own assumptions. In short, let’s focus on what people can bring to our team, not who they are – and then make sure they work in an environment where they can thrive. Not only is it the right thing to do, but our companies will be better for it.
We should all do our bit to make the London start-up community welcoming to everyone. Then maybe as we push out obsolete tech, we can push out obsolete attitudes along with it.