Why I Hate Talking About "Women in Tech" (But Can't Avoid It)

Circle of Chairs (Credit: Microsoft Clip Art Online)
Last week, I read an article by the founder of 99Dresses, Nikki Durkin, entitled: Don't Call Me a Woman in Tech. And I felt every word.

I hate talking about gender and the technology industry. Whether it's about gender discrimination in the workplace, the dumbing down and "pinkification" of technology for the "fairer sex", tropes in video games or even the need to target tech events or recruiting campaigns to women, I loathe gender-based discussions.

You know why? Because it often becomes a discussion about "Women in Tech".

Now, since most of you won't make it to the end of this article, let me give you the <tl;dr>:
Talking about "women in tech" perpetuates the assumption that gender is necessary in discussions about a person's participation in the tech industry. 
For those of you who are interested in the entire argument, let me explain:

It's Possible to be a Woman in Tech Without Being a "Woman in Tech"

I work in tech and I have ovaries.

I've tried to ignore the "plumbing politics" and tried to avoid getting caught up in the arguments that women don't get the same respect in tech workplaces. I tried to tell myself that things are changing, were changing, have changed.

I have had the absolute pleasure of working one-on-one with a number of men who treated me as an equal. They sought out my opinion and feedback as much as I did theirs. They are/were an absolute pleasure to work with. Alongside them, I am just a colleague. We don't talk about whether or not my being a girl helps me complete my deliverables with the same level of quality as their man-ness provides them. We just work. And work well.

So it's possible to be a woman in tech without being a "Woman in Tech".

Unfortunately, the problem with being a woman in tech is that we are still subject to being perceived as "Women in Tech". There is a systemic cultural issue that permeates throughout high tech in which women, by sole virtue of their gender, are perceived as being less capable.

I've worked my butt off over the last 20 years doing everything from designing to coding to writing to documenting to architecting and everything in between. Learning all my technical skills either on the job or in my spare time, I aimed to absorb knowledge and glean as much experience as possible from each and every one of my jobs with a single goal in mind: to do interesting work that I can feel proud of.

I thought that if I worked hard and proved my worth, it would overcome any glass ceiling or any plumbing prejudice. Boy, was I wrong. Apparently, the very possession of female plumbing affects my ability to succeed: to get a fair performance review, to get paid a fair wage, to get a fair chance at promotions, even to earn the job title for the work I actually do.

It's completely absurd.

And I think my experience (and similar experiences of my femme colleagues) demonstrates that even when we have pleasant experiences with our colleagues, there is something systemic going on that is preventing us from being entirely equal in the tech industry.

I blame the "Women in Tech" conversation.

Exclusion Breeds Segregation Breeds Exclusion

We are starting from a place of exclusion when we, as women, talk about ourselves as "Women in Tech". We are associating by virtue of our gender, which is exactly the problem. Women have even adopted a lexicon to describe being treated as less, including terms like brogramming and mansplaining. We need to change the conversation completely: Clearly, there are a lot of really good guys out there who work alongside women and don't hold their gender against them. How are we women any better if we make generalizations about men by virtue of their gender?

In fact, most of the methods used to counter our exclusion are equally exclusive, by excluding the other gender. Apparently, the best answer we have come up with to the question of how to make women equal in tech is segregation: isolate women as a group and tell them they are different.

Ugh.

I mean, there are a lot of associations, organizations, meetups, events, coaches, etc etc etc that would love to help us figure out how to navigate the tech industry despite our ovaries. But they feel wrong to me. In fact, the whole discussion feels wrong to me.

Everywhere you turn, there is some example of women excluding men in the name of equality:
  • female-friendly coding events;
  • female-first conferences;
  • female-specific networking events;
  • and so on.
Sure, women-only or women-first events might offer women a better chance to be seen and heard, but only at those events. Once they end, these events don't necessarily do a lot to raise the visibility or address the predicament of women in the actual workplace or even generally across the industry.

And these events frustrate me: Why should my plumbing dictate who I need to associate with to understand how to navigate my career and my profession? And, how does excluding men from the conversation solve (let alone alleviate) the problem?  How can we justify reverse discrimination in the name of equality?

All that does is minimize the conversation: it's their discussion, their problem or worse, it's their opinion. One side agreeing with itself does not make a conversation: we need both sides working together.

Why We Need to Talk about "People in Tech"

Why does the press never ask a man about being a "Man in Tech"? Because being "Male in Tech" is synonymous with "normal". It's the norm. Being a "Woman in Tech" is distinctive enough to warrant an actual title. Because it's not the norm.

The more we talk about the genders being different in tech, the longer we will perpetuate the distinction of the genders in tech.

There are cultural changes required to make corporations intolerant of sexism and the lesser treatment of women by their peers, management and even direct reports. We're not talking about recruiting more women or creating quotas, we're talking about making it unacceptable for women to be treated any differently on account of their plumbing. If we can talk about people, not women and men, then we can start to put the changes in place that are needed to move this conversation forward.

That's why a movement like HeForShe makes sense to me: Gather the genders to work on the issues together. It's the only way we will change institutionalized gender discrimination.

I, for one, hope that I can see the day when I am a woman in tech, not a "Woman in Tech". It will be a welcomed change.

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