On Diversity in Tech

Last month, the Dutch Girls in Tech group asked me to give a short talk about being a women in IT during their ‘European Code Week’ special meetup.

These are the notes on what I tried to convey during the meeting:

The other week yet another study came out about why women leave tech. Their ‎conclusion which I heartily agree with is “it’s the culture, not because math is hard”.‎

So what is it about the tech culture that drives women away and makes the barrier ‎for entry so high ?‎
Well the short of it is: we don’t fit in, we are the odd ones out.‎

We are too often not taken as seriously as our male counter-parts, sometimes just ‎ignored altogether, other times letched after and unfortunately we still get too ‎often thought of as part of the location, hr or other non-tech staff.‎

In short: We are not white males.‎

The best way to counter-act this, is of course to get more women into the industry, ‎but that’s a chicken-egg situation.‎
In the mean time, it’s up to us.‎

When I look around at techy user group meetings or conferences, generally the ‎women I see are either standing alone somewhere, making themselves as small ‎as possible or clinging to a male collegue they came in with, or trying to fit in, ‎dressing in the typical male tech uniform of jeans and a tech shirt and trying to ‎compete in a verbal “mine is bigger than yours” competition.‎
While I believe everyone has to do what’s right for them to feel comfortable or in ‎this case, possibly – less uncomfortable -, I’d also like to warn about ‎compromising yourself just to fit in.‎

We are women. Some of us are single, others in a relationship or married. Some ‎of us are mothers. Some of us are hetero-sexual, some are lesbian, some bi-‎sexual or transgender. Some of us are studying, some have just started a career, ‎others are well on their way. We come from different towns, different backgrounds, ‎different religions and maybe even different countries.‎
But we are all women. And there should be no need for any of us to hide that fact ‎just to ‘fit in’.‎

To be true to yourself and still ‘survive’ being part of the tech industry isn’t always ‎easy. As women we’ve been brought up to be on guard for our personal safety. ‎To be wary of large groups of men, to always be very aware of our surroundings ‎as danger may lurk in every corner. And we are right to be wary. One in every 2 to ‎‎3 women will encounter some form of sexual intimidation or assault during their ‎lifetime and some will encounter this more than once.‎

So it’s not strange at all that we as women feel discomfort when we join the tech ‎industry. It’s intimidating joining a tech company or going to a tech meeting and ‎being the only woman or one of only a handful of women there.‎

To illustrate what I mean by this for all the men here, let me recount a telling ‎example I encountered while the #yesallwomen movement was at it’s high at the ‎end of May this year.‎

‎”Imagine I have a 100 cocktail glasses here, I fill them all up with a nice little ‎cocktail and offer you one. Before you drink from it, though, I tell you that 98 of ‎them are absolutely safe to drink, however, two of them contain cyanide and will ‎kill you in seconds.‎
Would you still drink it ?”‎

All men I’ve told this example to, respond with a resounding “NO” and rightfully so. ‎But that is exactly the same dynamic women encounter every single day in the ‎tech industry.‎

Now just to be clear, this is not meant to discourage you from going into the tech ‎industry. I believe, that when we – both men and women – understand the dynamic ‎better, we will be better equipped to counter-act it.‎

So what can we all – both men and women – and yes, gentlemen, I very much ‎include you in this – *do* to change this dynamic and to lower the barrier of entry ‎for women ? Well, one thing I have personally found very effective is to actually ‎make all newcomers feel welcome. When you attend a tech meeting, don’t just ‎spend all your time during the drinks catching up with the people you already ‎know. Look around you, go up to someone who is new at the meeting and ‎welcome them. Introduce them to some more people and most importantly, treat ‎them as your peers, as fellow developers.‎

Another thing you can do – if all this meeting stuff sounds ‎really intimidating -, is: use the internet. The internet after all can be quite ‎anonymous if you want it to be. Choose a gender neutral nickname, study open ‎source code, contribute to it by reporting bugs, sending in pull requests, adding ‎unit tests, writing documentation or creating translations. I personally found this a ‎low-key way to learn an incredible amount about the technologies which ‎interested me while at the same time allowing you to build up your CV. Then, ‎once you know some people through online interaction, it will be a lot less ‎intimidating to dive into the community.‎

I sincerely believe that having more diversity – in the broadest sense of the word – ‎in the tech industry will improve the code we write, will improve the usability of ‎applications, will lessen the amount of bugs, will increase profitability and will also ‎improve the atmosphere in the work place.‎

So, thank you for being here and I hope to still see all of you at meetings like this ‎and more in-depth ones in five years time.‎

Accompanying slides