Women in tech

A pretty common topic in the tech industry is "women". I think it's necessary to talk about women in tech and I was really glad that Nordic.js had Caroline Drucker give a kinda Feminism 101 talk at the conference (Update: Here are Caroline's notes from the talk, together with a video recording.). It was a really good talk, and I think we need to continue the conversation.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: I don't consider myself a feminist. Not because I oppose women’s rights or don't believe our society has a lot of problems when it comes to gender equality. I don't. We do. But. I believe in equal rights and equal opportunities but I don't believe that achieving those will mean that we always get equal outcome. Also, in Sweden the feminist movement has largely become synonymous with far-left socialists that I just don't want to get associated with.

But that is not important. Let's not let labels draw our eyes from the problem at hand. Actually, I think we are facing two different problems.

  • Women don't get into the tech industry. They choose other paths in life and the tech industry becomes male dominated.
  • Women and other minorities in tech are treated badly.

The first of these problems will take years to tackle, and is much bigger than just our little industry. We can do a lot of stuff now to get girls and women interested in tech. But we can't expect to fix it overnight, since any real solution requires women to choose different paths early in life than they do today and have been doing for some time. The tech industry will continue to be male dominated for the foreseeable future.

I still want to list some things that we should try to do in order to, eventually, make the situation better.

  • Get coding into schools. Estonian kids start coding in first grade. So should kids in all countries. Being able to talk to computers is going to be an essential skill in the twenty-first century and it's going to make kids understand more about what the tech industry is about.
  • Make it easier to tell computers how to do advanced things (what we now know as "coding"). We need to make creative tools that are easier to use so that we can lower the barrier to get into the tech industry and make it accessible to more people.
  • Be a role model, and help showcase other role models. We need to show what we can do and why we love it, to help young people realise that you don't have to be in one specific way to work in tech. We need to show our diversity, both in terms of gender, race, skill sets and personality.

The second problem should be possible to fix much sooner. And much of what Drucker mentioned during her talk is stuff that addresses the second problem. Specifically, she mentioned 10 steps we can take to make things better:

  • Listen
  • Believe
  • Amplify
  • Give space
  • Chose your words
  • Use your voice
  • Question your culture
  • Demand adult HR
  • Be an example
  • Be human

Some of these I find somewhat problematic. Not because they are wrong per se, but for two other reasons. First, because they because I think they are vague and easy to misunderstand. Secondly, I think we should focus not on counteraction but on elimination of discrimination and underrepresentation. I believe affirmative action is counter-productive and gives a false sense of acheivment. Those are just minor comments. Do these things and you'll be fine.

I do however have a couple of guidelines of my own that I try to follow.

  • Keep things professional. Work is work. The fantastic thing about our industry is that pretty much all of us love what we do. We have chosen to do THIS among the many other things we could have done. Treat people as professionals who share your love for tech and keep it at that.
  • Be curious. Don't be afraid to ask if you don't know or don't understand. Asking and listening will help you understand people and become more empathic. Let people tell their story.
  • We are all individuals. We have all done different journeys and we all have different experiences, interests and skill sets. Don't treat everyone the same, but treat everyone as adults, and treat them with respect.
  • Speak up. When people make mistakes, initiate a discussion about how to do things in a better way. I think nobody wants to be an asshole, and in every other aspect our industry takes pride in learning from our mistakes. This should be no different. Embrace mistakes and help the people around you improve.

I would love to see more thoughts on this subject. Ideas need to be bounced. I don't think there's a quick fix. Utopia doesn't exist and we're only human. But almost all of us want the same thing here. Let's make try to make it better together.

Ok. So when are we done?

We will never be done. We won't wake up one day having fixed all the problems. We're going to have to make this, the constant struggle to improve, a part of what we do. Just like we do with most of the problems we face on a daily basis.