July 9th, 2013

On Women in Tech: A Different Perspective

I didn't grow up believing I could do anything I wanted to.

I grew up in a community where it wasn't that common for young people to continue their education past high school. Most of the people I went to school with ended up at jobs that pay just above minimum wage and that have very little room for growth or promotion. Most people I knew didn't believe they had the ability to change their circumstances and they very rarely moved up in socio-economic class.

I was often discouraged from pursuing a career that required a college education. I knew that I wanted to do something different than what I saw around me. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I never thought much past college graduation because of how unlikely it seemed that I would make it that far.

I didn't know a single computer scientist. I didn't know that 'web developer' or 'software designer' were careers. The only things that seemed within my reach were the jobs that either my parents or my friends' parents worked.

I stumbled upon my first job at a tech company by accident. And while all of the developers who worked there encouraged me to learn how to program and design, it wasn't until I saw a woman succeed in that environment that I thought it was also possible for me.

I now consider myself somewhat successful. I'm a designer and a developer at a company I love and one that is well-respected by my peers. The work I do doesn't feel like work. I make more than what my mother made when she retired after 38 years of civil service. And I get to do things I never thought I'd have the opportunity to. I get to travel, I set my own work schedule, and most importantly, I really do believe that I have the opportunity to affect change. Sometimes, if I'm really lucky, I get to inspire other people to do the same.

My experiences thus far have lead me to want to make it easier for people like me to succeed in this industry. So along with designing and building web applications, I've created some things that a younger, less experienced me would have benefitted from at the start of my career. These things do not exclude men from participating. Instead, they are aimed at strengthening the community around and surfacing the work of women who are respected by women and men alike.

Every time I talk about what lead me to create Passion Projects, I am forced to revisit the negative experiences I've had in this industry. A coworker and friend recently pointed out that if I hadn't experienced these things, I might not be motivated to support other women in our community or create things that aim to improve the experiences for all women in this industry. Whether or not my efforts have had a positive net impact on the community, I can't be entirely sure. But my friend's words made me feel like I was moving in the right direction.

Over the years I've learned that the best way to make sure your experience doesn't go to waste is to invest it in the people around you. And for me, this is what I see Women in Tech initiatives doing. I see them building communities and support systems around the collective experience of other women in our industry.

If you've succeeded without support systems like these, that's great. You have every right to be proud of yourself. Keep doing what you're doing, because it's clearly working for you. But when did it become any of our jobs to decide what can and does work for other women? It seems inherently wrong to attack or discredit the communities and support systems of other women because they aren't directly benefiting us. And unfortunately in doing so, we discourage people, specifically marginalized people, from reaching out for the support and resources they may actually want or need.

Sure, there are problems that have arisen as a result of more people paying attention to the lack of diversity in our industry. Some of these problems were addressed in a recent blog post and while I had a hard time agreeing with the author's conclusions about the impact of the Women in Tech movement, I found a few specific arguments to be valid:

  • I, too, am deeply bothered by the idea that women should or would be hired into roles they aren't qualified for, to meet a quota. It's a problem that I've been vocal about in hiring conversations and my concern has been met with respect and consideration by most.

  • As a woman, and someone from a mixed background, I, too, am offended when people use racial or gender-equality issues as a platform to promote themselves or to define their personal brand.

Now, a concession:

I don't go to every women-focused meetup or event. They're not all for me. But that's just it: if I don't find something useful or beneficial, I simply don't get involved. It doesn't offend me that they exist and it doesn't offend the organizers that I'm not there. And they certainly don't make my job as a woman in this industry any harder. I attend the meetups and events that I do find useful. I've personally benefitted from meeting other women who do the same things that I do and who run into the same challenges. I've been able to build and grow an amazing support system from these interactions. I think it's important to keep in mind that all WIT groups and meetups were started by someone who saw a need for them, and they probably provide value for people with similar needs and experiences.

We'll always disagree with one another on what is and isn't valuable, because even amongst women, we're all very different. We come from different places, belong to different cultures, and learn in different ways. We should continue to disagree and have interesting and thoughtful conversations. Dissent is, after all, a byproduct of diversity. It's something we all should encourage and embrace. But I wonder if disagreeing needs to lead to attacking or attempting to discredit whole communities and support systems simply because we don't directly benefit from them.

Things are getting better:

I see the tech industry growing and changing. I see more women at the conferences I attend, I work with more women on the technical teams I'm a part of, and I'm building and strengthening my relationships with other women in the community every day. These are all things that I personally value and that I believe are making tech a better place for myself and other women to be.

If you're interested in getting involved with women-focused groups or in supporting programs that women (of all ages) can benefit from, any of these awesome organizations are a good place to start.