JavaOne: The Problem With Women - A Technical Approach

Yesterday dawned, with a sense of foreboding (actually it dawned with me coughing my lungs out, but we’ve heard enough about the sub-optimal state of my respiratory system this week).   On this day, I was giving the talk I was dreading when I got asked to do it.  It’s the talk I actually put more work into than any of the other sessions I was presenting at this JavaOne.  It was the Women In IT talk.

It’s timely, given that conference season has one again led to cries of sexism and discrimination.  So although I really hate banging on about the subject (you’d never believe it from my blog) it’s still necessary to cover.

I feel, and have felt for a long time, that the way we’re approaching the “problem” of the lack of women techies is just wrong.  Obviously painting stuff pink is just not going to cut it (I hope that’s obvious).  I think the fundamental problem is that we keep thinking about women.  While that should be great for someone like me, it actually triggers a whole bunch of gender stereotyping in our poor human brains which prevents us seeing the big picture - the fact that we’re not attractive as an industry for women suggests we’re losing a whole heap of talent because of some sort of image problem.  We just don’t see the other missing minorities, or we’re not comfortable talking about them.  I mean, can you image running a session about attracting more black people into programming?  I suspect there would be uproar in singling out a minority based on something as arbitrary as skin colour.

To be fair, even before the session there was a tiny bit of controversy:


It is nice though to see guys (because indeed this was someone of the male persuasion) getting upset at the thought of someone taking a shot at the girls again.  I think it probably would have been a little more helpful to the session if they’d put my name on it…

Maybe the publicity helped, because there was a really decent turnout for the talk.  I’m terrible at estimating numbers, and of course I completely forgot to take a photo of my lovely audience.  But I’d say there were… 60? 80? people there?  Between 50 and 100 anyway, and seemed like a roughly even split of men and women, and there were people of different backgrounds.  Which is great, it’s more women than you normally see at a conference, and more men than you usually see at an event talking about “women’s issues”.  I really love running sessions about this subject with guys there, I’m of the opinion that talking about this with just women is almost completely useless, and isolates us from the rest of our community.


I took the novel approach of actually trying to treat the problem the same way coders treat any problem: break it down logically.  So I had the problem, the requirements, a retrospective, and the aim was to come up with a list of tasks going forward.

Georges Saab from Oracle was great as our “Business Analyst” - not only did he outline the business value in increasing diversity in the workplace:
  1. Greater pool of talent to hire from
  2. Happier and more productive employees
  3. Greater retention rates
He also gave examples of how this is a bigger problem than just “Women in IT” - he spoke about being the outsider as an American who had relocated to Sweden, and how he benefitted from being in a country that recognises a father’s rights when his daughter was born there.

At LMAX we’re super-Agile (something we’ll actually be talking about at Devoxx this year), so the logical thing to do is to have a retrospective.  The question was somewhat fluffy - tell me about working as a techie, specific points about being female not essential.  So as with all our retrospectives, we covered good points, bad points, questions and ideas.

<aside>Incidentally, loads of people there knew about Agile methods and many were using them at work. Does this mean that agile is now more-or-less the norm?  Does it mean that companies that encourage people to go to conferences are agile or agile-friendly companies?  Or does it mean that people who care about people (i.e. those that go to a session like this) are more drawn to Agile methods? </aside>

(Yes, I’m wearing trainers to present, for the very first time! Thanks to Cecilia Borg for taking the photo)

((Also, special super-thanks to Stephen Chin who saved my presentation by sneaking in with a flipchart, stand and pens literally seconds before I needed it))

Everyone in the audience came up with really great points about working as a techie.  The thing I found most interesting was that very little of it was gender-specific.

Negatives

  • “Pink it and Shrink it” marketing campaigns, allegedly for women.
  • How do you get into the job?  Entry and career paths unclear
  • Micromanagement
  • The hours
  • Lack of mentoring/role models
  • Booth Babes (they are bad for women, but they are bad for men too - very demeaning to assume that guys as bright and successful as techies are drawn only to boobs)
  • Salary discrepancies
  • Brogrammers stereotype
  • Education pipeline – women doing “computery” subjects decreasing from about 13 years old and onwards (UK numbers)
  • Pressure to be visible when you’re a woman/minority
  • You’re seen as a woman first and a techie second
  • Time drain to keep current, 90% of what you do is learning new stuff not using skills you already had

Positives

  • Being different makes you stand out
  • The hours
  • The salary
  • Woman’s perspective is a positive for the team (Later agreed that diverse teams generally were more interesting to work in)
  • We’ve seen an increase in the number of senior women
  • Balanced teams are more productive
  • There are lots of jobs in IT, always hiring
  • Flexibility and meritocracy
  • Women Are Exceptional (rare to get in as a girl so you’re either really interested, or really good, or both)

Questions

  • I don’t understand this, my CIO is a woman?
  • Is there a correlation between gamers and professional programmers?
  • Does the wider availability of technology (e.g. Facebook) lead to a wider appeal (of working in the industry) to people?
  • As parents should we be doing more to encourage our kids into technology?
  • Is the image of techies changing? 

We can replace the word “Woman” with person pretty much everywhere, and it becomes clear that we shouldn’t be trying to work out the problems that face women, but instead be working harder to attract more awesome people into the job we love (I asked who in the room really hated the job, and one person half put his hand up.  So as techies, we generally like what we do), and to look after everyone who’s here already as well.  So that lead on to the actions we could do to help this.

Actions


  • Look elsewhere for technical talent (e.g. people with craft skills are creative and practical)
  • We should be more actively networking (join your local JUG!)
  • Get them young - go to schools and show kids what we do
  • Challenge stereotypes - we’re not geeks who live at home and code in our bedrooms, we’re collaborative and creative individuals
  • We need more role models of all flavours
  • Flexible education - it should be cheaper to make “mistakes” - e.g. to switch degrees or to cross-train from other qualifications, we can’t be limited by choices we made so young
  • Work experience to give kids/young people a taste of different jobs
  • Encourage / expect children to ask questions, more than just learning the school curriculum
  • Buy kids technology e.g. raspberry pi, arduino
  • Show our faces, we are all role models
  • Be vocal about our passions.  We love this job, let’s tell people.

I felt extremely positive at the end of the session, I think guys saw some of the attitudes that affect women, and women saw that guys were not only sympathetic to our “plight”, but that they suffer discrimination too.  Basically we’re all in this together, and talking gender specifically is sometimes dividing us.

One observation that I loved was that one guy’s wife wanted their daughter to do what he does because he loves his job, and she sees hers as a chore.

I also had a number of spin-off conversations later, as always happens when people are dead interested, and a really good point someone raised is that as techies we’re frequently the odd one out, the outsider, in a group of “normal” people.  We’re actually quite used to it and pretty much embrace it. So if anything we’re an industry which will be more tolerant of your outsider-ness (as a woman, as someone who looks different) than more traditional jobs.  It’s a thought, and an attitude we should perhaps publish more.

The three things I think we should do as individuals are:

1. Take The Plunge
Women in particularly, but all of you who don’t think you can be That Person - start talking at conferences, start writing blogs, start a new user group if you haven’t got one, go into schools.  Be that role model.

2. Don’t Point Out Her Gender
I know the guys mean well, and women are guilty of this too, but don’t highlight to a women at a conference/interview/meetup when you meet her for the first time that she’s female.  She knows this. It’s almost always said in a positive way (“Wow, it’s great that you’re here, we don’t see many women in these parts”), and I know you mean it to be encouraging.  But it just highlights how different she is, not how awesome it is she’s doing the same thing you’re doing.

3. What We Do Is Awesome
We’re here because we like what we do, we get paid for doing our hobbies.  Not many people can boast of that.  We need to get out there and tell people how much fun it is to be a techie.  Don’t let the Hollywood geek stereotype be the only image people have of us.


I had a really good time, and I came out feeling very positive about my job, my industry, and the people who do this.  I’d love to run this session again if I get the opportunity.

EDIT: The slides and audio are available.  The content catalog is a little counter-intuitive to use, hopefully that link will take you to a page with this session title on - click on it and there’s “media” on the pop up window.  This session doesn’t lend itself well to audio because of the audience participation aspect but I do repeat most of the points and you get a feel for the session.