JavaOne: The Problem With Women – A Technical Approach

Yesterday dawned, with a sense of foreboding (actually it dawned with me coughing my lungs out, but we’ve heard enough about the sub-optimal state of my respiratory system this week).   On this day, I was giving the talk I was dreading when I got asked to do it.  It’s the talk I actually put more work into than any of the other sessions I was presenting at this JavaOne.  It was the Women In IT talk.

It’s timely, given that conference season has one again led to cries of sexism and discrimination.  So although I really hate banging on about the subject (you’d never believe it from my blog) it’s still necessary to cover.

I feel, and have felt for a long time, that the way we’re approaching the “problem" of the lack of women techies is just wrong.  Obviously painting stuff pink is just not going to cut it (I hope that’s obvious).  I think the fundamental problem is that we keep thinking about women.  While that should be great for someone like me, it actually triggers a whole bunch of gender stereotyping in our poor human brains which prevents us seeing the big picture - the fact that we’re not attractive as an industry for women suggests we’re losing a whole heap of talent because of some sort of image problem.  We just don’t see the other missing minorities, or we’re not comfortable talking about them.  I mean, can you image running a session about attracting more black people into programming?  I suspect there would be uproar in singling out a minority based on something as arbitrary as skin colour.

To be fair, even before the session there was a tiny bit of controversy:

It is nice though to see guys (because indeed this was someone of the male persuasion) getting upset at the thought of someone taking a shot at the girls again.  I think it probably would have been a little more helpful to the session if they’d put my name on it…

Maybe the publicity helped, because there was a really decent turnout for the talk.  I’m terrible at estimating numbers, and of course I completely forgot to take a photo of my lovely audience.  But I’d say there were… 60? 80? people there?  Between 50 and 100 anyway, and seemed like a roughly even split of men and women, and there were people of different backgrounds.  Which is great, it’s more women than you normally see at a conference, and more men than you usually see at an event talking about “women’s issues”.  I really love running sessions about this subject with guys there, I’m of the opinion that talking about this with just women is almost completely useless, and isolates us from the rest of our community.

I took the novel approach of actually trying to treat the problem the same way coders treat any problem: break it down logically.  So I had the problem, the requirements, a retrospective, and the aim was to come up with a list of tasks going forward.

Georges Saab from Oracle was great as our “Business Analyst” - not only did he outline the business value in increasing diversity in the workplace:

  1. Greater pool of talent to hire from
  2. Happier and more productive employees
  3. Greater retention rates

He also gave examples of how this is a bigger problem than just “Women in IT” - he spoke about being the outsider as an American who had relocated to Sweden, and how he benefitted from being in a country that recognises a father’s rights when his daughter was born there.

At LMAX we’re super-Agile (something we’ll actually be talking about at Devoxx this year), so the logical thing to do is to have a retrospective.  The question was somewhat fluffy - tell me about working as a techie, specific points about being female not essential.  So as with all our retrospectives, we covered good points, bad points, questions and ideas.

<aside>Incidentally, loads of people there knew about Agile methods and many were using them at work. Does this mean that agile is now more-or-less the norm?  Does it mean that companies that encourage people to go to conferences are agile or agile-friendly companies?  Or does it mean that people who care about people (i.e. those that go to a session like this) are more drawn to Agile methods? </aside>

(Yes, I’m wearing trainers to present, for the very first time! Thanks to Cecilia Borg for taking the photo)

((Also, special super-thanks to Stephen Chin who saved my presentation by sneaking in with a flipchart, stand and pens literally seconds before I needed it))

Everyone in the audience came up with really great points about working as a techie.  The thing I found most interesting was that very little of it was gender-specific.

Negatives

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  • "Pink it and Shrink it” marketing campaigns, allegedly for women.
  • How do you get into the job?  Entry and career paths unclear
  • Micromanagement
  • The hours
  • Lack of mentoring/role models
  • Booth Babes (they are bad for women, but they are bad for men too - very demeaning to assume that guys as bright and successful as techies are drawn only to boobs)
  • Salary discrepancies
  • Brogrammers stereotype
  • Education pipeline – women doing “computery” subjects decreasing from about 13 years old and onwards (UK numbers)
  • Pressure to be visible when you’re a woman/minority
  • You’re seen as a woman first and a techie second
  • Time drain to keep current, 90% of what you do is learning new stuff not using skills you already had

Positives

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