Jenny Brown (skywind8) wrote,
Jenny Brown

Responses to "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap" documentary

I was invited to join the Women in IT Network at work to view the film. At the same time, I also got an invite because I am a mentor for CoderGirl, which teaches women to code so they can find jobs in the industry. The film was a summation of clips on gender bias in tech, from many things I was already certainly aware of, plus some fresh content from middle school girls learning to code at school.

What made it profound was how it all tied together when presented as one single movie. I teared up several times as I saw explanations of many of the obstacles that held me back, knocked me down, or failed to support me at crucial stages in my development as a software engineer. I saw myself reflected in the statistics of those who were held down by biases and lack of support. And I saw myself reflected again in the statistics of women whose career stagnates 10-20 years into it and they can't seem to get ahead - and some of them look elsewhere for opportunities.

I won't leave coding. I love it too much. But I see the same stagnation in my own experiences.

I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard support and encouragement from a manager at work, encouraging me to grow professionally in a significant way. I don't mean "oh pick up this one skill we need; here's a 3-day cram course" -- I mean the kind of professional development that leads to big roles, projects, promotions, and long-term professional connections and networking. There was exactly one job at the beginning of my career; one in mid-career; and the one I'm in now. That's very few for a 20-year work history. And I know damned good and well that I am worth it, so this isn't a case of "oh you're not doing enough" -- I've been the only or one of two senior tech leads for most of the last 15 years of my career.

In contrast, I've watched management at various places intentionally develop and groom the guys for manager roles, project leads, technical architects, presenters/speakers, and cross-team organizers. I've seen them sent to trainings that I was denied when I asked for, given insider information about corporate politics and team dynamics, and I've seen them pushed to take on big challenges that they didn't even want, while I was overlooked or flat-out denied with no reason given. I hadn't realized, until tonight watching the film, just how profoundly that changes that arc of a career and prevents advancement.

And... after all those experiences... I'm tired. I'm tired of working my ass off only to lose out again and again. I'm done trying to kick the football until Lucy makes amends. I'm not even sure what I'd be chasing - for all the talk of companies wanting to help their women stay and succeed, most don't post salaries with job titles and a clear path of what it takes to get to each level. Everything is secret and subjective, which makes it easy to arbitrarily deny someone who has proven that they're capable. Want to fix the number of women promoted? Make it an open system with concrete milestones and public salary numbers, and then stick to it.

The film touched on the obvious biases - minority status, stereotype threat, educational expectations, cultural bias from a young age, and harassment and frat boy hacker culture. What they went light on, and I wish they'd covered more, were the things that go deeper: messaging and invitations, sponsorship, access to technology and support services, what is a welcoming environment, what are we asking people to give up in order to show up and participate, how do verbal interactions demonstrate bias and how can we counteract that.

At Grove leadership training, we talked about group dynamics and introduced words for certain aspects of that. Primary process is what we are gathered together to do; it's our main task. An example would be: We're working as a team to do a prairie burn and restoration project. All of the aspects of group dynamics that orbit that primary task, such as deciding who's bringing the equipment, and how we're breaking up into pairs, and making sure we have water jugs, and so forth, are primary process.

Then there is the next layer of group dynamics: secondary process describes all the things happening to people or between people that can either support or distract from the primary goal. Someone trying to dodge a wasp while listening to directions is a secondary-process issue. Interpersonal drama is a secondary process. Conscious and subconscious bias are secondary process issues.

I see the overt gender bias in tech -- harassment, overt discrimination, hacker culture -- as primary process issues. They suck, but they're easy enough to point a finger at and say, this needs to change. And in some ways they're easier to work with; put skilled, experienced managers in place and you will stop most of the overt bad stuff, albeit with some work.

What I'd like to see more exploration of are the subtleties of secondary process. These are the things that are hard for even well-meaning people to get right. These are the micro-aggressions, the false assumptions, the favoritism and long-term effects of small decisions multiplied. These are the ways in which a small group of people get extra information, behind-the-scenes preferential access, and subtle boosts that make them seem to shine over others around them. These are the hard-to-prove things, the accidental differences, and the long-term trends across an industry rather than in a single person's hands. And we need ways to wrestle with these things, authentically and honestly, to talk in specifics instead of vague generalizations. This is where it gets painfully honest to see our own biases and figure out how to work around those.

And, I am going to add another layer: there are also processes that act in concert across entire job industries and cultures, that bias in a consistent direction, which are incredibly hard for any small group to change. Women do a disproportionate amount of the housework and child rearing. They are disproportionately dealing with poverty, evictions, and domestic violence. In the job world, they face a set of rules and systems that make child bearing and child raising unreasonably difficult. And then on top of all that, they are more easily fired and left with a broken up job history that does less to support them economically, support their professional advancement, support the basic bones of having a child, and makes them look unreliable even if they aren't. Have you ever been fired (excuse me, "laid off") for being too good at your job? If you answered yes, I'm willing to bet you're a woman.

You don't really understand bias and discrimination until you start to grasp that third layer, and its effects across someone's entire lifespan, and into the lives of their children and grandchildren.

I'm willing to admit that the mass cultural bias is a tough nut to crack. So, within our companies, where we're dealing with primary process and secondary process, that are a bit easier to grasp, we need to be able to talk about what's going on and why. And that means (*gasp*) talking about feelings, and listening to others, and those are difficult conversations in jobs where people come from very different patterns of emotional communication and cultural expectations around emotional safety and where emotions are largely kept muted because it's "at work".

And what no one will come out and say is that those emotions are muted because every one of us who shows up is vulnerable and many are scared and they're trying to put on a brave face and do the best they can, and if someone opens up then everyone feels raw. And we haven't built the containers for those experiences. And yes, I mean the guys here.

So I look at my own career, particularly when I'm at a pivotal point in going in a new direction with it, and I wonder, what's next. Do I have any other choice but to continue on a very unlevel playing field? Is there anything in my own control that I can do, to push back at biases in a way that works, and that gives me equal access? (I nearly wrote "roughly equal" access, because writing "equal access" sounded ridiculously over the top and audacious.) As I hit variations of both glass ceiling and sticky floor, where do I find or make MY path to success? Is there one, or am I going to hit invisible barricades every way I go?

One of the CoderGirl mentors is a young white guy in his mid-career. When he greets new CoderGirl participants, he tells the women, "I need you in this field. You will make our companies more successful. And so I am going to show up every week to make sure you get the chance to learn this." They really appreciate hearing that. It's a different experience to be invited rather than barely tolerated.

That is what we need. It's not about eliminating bias so you can be nice, so you can avoid discriminating. It's about making a real contribution to fixing the imbalance, and it's about men taking responsibility for their impact and their own leadership. It's about being intentionally welcoming, overtly supportive, not just nice. It's realizing that bias doesn't stop at "ok you're hired."

I have enough experience to say: Work is a totally different life experience when you have a manager and sponsor who support your professional development in an active, personal way. It's mind blowing how different it is from the usual cog-in-the-machine feel.

EDIT to add: The following article crossed my facebook feed quite timely tonight. It's richer than most of the posts on the topic.
Tags: culture, geek/programming, leadership, political, work
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