I have been thinking about writing something on women in tech and what we have been witnessing over the past few months and I had resisted thus far. Last week, however, as I was a guest on the DownloadFM podcast I was asked my opinion about the many stories we have read in the press concerning childish CEO behavior and continued allegations of sexual harassment, starting from Uber to 500 Startups, and I could no longer shy away. After all, I am in tech, I am a woman, and I have an opinion on the topic.
We expect more from Men in Tech
Women face discrimination, chauvinism, and harassment in pretty much any business they are in. For some reason, however, I think the disbelief around some of the stories that have emerged in tech comes from assuming that men in tech would be different, evolved, better. Better than the men who run Wall Street and I better than the men on Capitol Hill. That hope is buoyed by the fact that men in tech are by and large well-educated, well-travelled, they are entrusted with building our future. Men in tech are also by and large white and entitled and often with poor social skills when it comes to women. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are, alas, exceptions.
You start to believe it is You, not Them
I have been a tech analyst for 17 years, and while I have seen more women in tech, I still get excited when there is a line for the ladies’ bathroom at a tech conference. I still pay attention to how long it takes for a woman to be on stage at those tech conferences. And while it seems that all the big corporations have increased the number of women on stage, if you pay attention, you notice, that most of those women on stage are performing demos and they are not upper management.
When I got pregnant with my daughter, female as well as male colleagues, told me that my priorities would change and I would not work as hard. I was expecting it from my male colleagues, but it was disappointing to hear from my fellow female colleagues that it was expected of me to want to do less. The implication of course, if I did not feel that way, was that I was a bad mother.
In many occasions, I was told I was emotional; I was asked if it was that time of the month; I was told to grow a pair. In meetings, I have been interrupted and talked over by endless male colleagues, mistaken for my colleague’s secretary and right out ignored after making the mistake to serve coffee to meeting guests. At the start of the smartphone market, I was handed over pink phones with a lipstick mirror. I’d love to ask Walt Mossberg if he ever reviewed one of those! On Twitter for complementing an actor’s launch of a tech product, I was told I was “throwing my knickers” at him. I have been the token woman on tech panels, and I was invited as a guest on a radio show because “the audience responds better to women talking tech.” And the list goes on.
Things like this happen all the time to many women. They happen so often that you start to think it is the norm, or that you are reading it wrong and taking it personally. Whether you think it is wrong or not becomes irrelevant though when you consider how hard you worked to get to where you are and how much further you want to go. So, you ignore it, you smile, and move on. You do what Irish reporter Caitriona Perry did in the Oval Office a few weeks ago.
Avoiding Discrimination 3.0
If things have not changed up to now why is it important that they do? Why does it matter so much that men in tech must understand enough is enough? Because what is going to happen when everybody in the room looks alike and behaves the same way? And of course, this applies to gender as well as race, religion, politics.
We are at a time when we are training machines to think like us. What a scary thought when it comes to women in business. What will happen when machines consider physical and psychological traits based on the beliefs that dominate society today? What if men, who claim they did not know it is not normal to make advances in work situations train computers to think it is normal too? Will women be negated roles a priory based on the belief that “it’s much more likely to be more talking” if too many women are part of the board? Are we really building a better society if we move from paying a woman by the hour for sexual favors to buying an AI-enabled doll that will respond to its master just the way a male engineer has designed it? What will happen if self-driving cars are taught that a woman is more dispensable than a man when it comes to life and death situations?
We can rejoice at having female emojis with more professions and we should. We should continue to foster STEM among female students but know that just because they can do the job it does not mean they will be given the opportunity to do it. Let’s lean on the strong female role models we have. Let’s be supportive. Let’s have each other’s back. A smart woman said recently that we should not just be happy to be in the room where it happens. We should be sitting at the table and make it happen. So, let’s do that, let’s stop thinking it is us, let’s stop thinking it is normal and let’s get a seat at the table.