Should you notice I’m a woman? Should I care?

So, following on from my observations of being an outsider at FOSDEM because I’m not an open source developer, I do have another story to tell where my female-ness is actually relevant.

I’m going to give specifics, but it’s not to name and shame or anything like that, it’s just that anonymising it will probably erase some of the subtleties.  But I’m not telling this to make anyone feel bad, because this is not an oh-poor-me story, this is just the way it goes sometimes and I want to share what it feels like.

At JFokus (a conference I really enjoyed, where I got a chance to spend time with some awesome people) I was on a panel (well, game-show really) about static vs dynamic languages.  Not unusually, I was the only woman on the panel.  Also not unusually, one of the reasons I agreed to take part is to do my bit in demonstrating that women have technical knowledge too (in my opinion, it’s important where possible to avoid a stage full of white men of a particular age, and I’m in a position to be able to do something about that).  And, as per usual, I was a bit nervous about this in case the only woman on the panel also turned out to look stupid, but hey, looking stupid is one of the risks of this job.

During the session, my gender was mentioned twice - once with “ladies first”, and once to specifically point out that our static-languages team was somehow superior because we had both genders represented (well of course we’re better, I’m on the team). Note that neither of these was derogatory at all - both were, in fact, positive towards me, and I wasn’t troubled or offended by them. I’m used to people noticing and commenting on my gender.  I got used to it in the same way you get used to your commute to work, or dealing with merge conflicts - it’s something you do, it’s not always comfortable, but it’s no one’s fault and they’re not out to get you.

I didn’t really process how the gender-mentions made me feel until after, at which point I was drained from giving yet another new talk that day, as well as the surprisingly physical panel discussion. But afterwards, when I was back in my hotel room packing for yet another plane journey, I was thinking “is it normal?".  Was it inevitable that someone was going to notice/point out that I’m female?

Was it down to my choice of clothing?  I debated long and hard with myself about wearing what was definitely a ridiculously short skirt for a session like that, but in the end I decided I didn’t want to wear jeans like everyone else, and wearing tiny skirts is something I find fun. But I did think I’d be behind a table and it wouldn’t be too obvious.  Should I worry that much about what I wear?  I used to plan what to wear for work, I used to love dressing up for going out with friends, so over-thinking my clothes for a conference is part of who I am.

And one of the reasons to wear the skirt is because I’ve found myself wearing jeans and t-shirts more than ever.  I think the combination of travelling a lot (I hate packing, so packing a couple of pairs of jeans and a bunch of t-shirts makes life easy) and being part of a tech company where that’s basically our uniform has lead to extreme laziness in my clothing choices, and I want to change that.  Who wants to look like everyone else?  Not me.

So back in that hotel room, at the end of a long day, knowing I have to get up at 5am the next morning to get on a plane to New York, I felt drained.  I felt… vulnerable? But if I dig down to find out what’s really making me feel not-cool, it’s not because a couple of people noticed I was a girl.  It’s because I was tired, because I was on display, because I had been worried about my choice of clothes, because drawing attention to yourself is not terribly British, because I didn’t know if my new talk was any good.

It’s easy to blame impostor syndrome, or something similar. And maybe this is what impostor syndrome feels like. But I’m pretty sure every conference speaker, whatever their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, has felt this way.  I don’t think it’s because I have two X chromosomes and I’m in a male-dominated environment.

I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from this experience.  I did want to share it so that other people know what it feels like.

Possible conclusions:

  • When you’re tired, it’s easy to blame the first thing that springs to mind for your lack of shiny-happy feelings
  • When you’ve got a lot on your plate, seemingly-innocuous (even those driven by positive intentions) comments or actions can increase your stress levels
  • Don’t think too much.  It can drive you mad.

Feel like an outsider?

I've heard great things about this conference, so I was pretty exited to go
The Java dev room
Now I know people talk about impostor syndrome whenever they mention the woeful lack of diversity at tech conferences.  Interestingly, I felt like an impostor at FOSDEM - not because I'm a woman (there were quite a few techy women around at FOSDEM, more than I expected) but because I'm not an open source person.
I mean, I am, technically - MongoDB and the Java driver are both open source, and I have real live code on github.  But I didn't get there via the open source community, I was hired to do a specific job that happens to be open source (for which I am extremely grateful).  So although I knew the MongoDB folks I was there with and a lot of people who were running or speaking in the Java room, I didn't feel really at home in this conference.  I think I feel more comfortable with the ones aimed at enterprise Java developers (by which I mean Java people who work producing software for companies) because this is more similar to my background - I understand the attendees and I think I know what they want.
It's also possible since I've been to a lot more of the enterprise-aimed conferences that I used to feel just as awkward there, and I've become much more comfortable now I've been to many.
Which leads me to another observation: when I first went to JavaOne, in 2011, I felt extremely conspicuous as a woman.  I mean, I didn't do much to help, my skirts and shorts are occasionally… not really enterprise-developer-length.  But I felt like everyone noticed me and I felt the pressure to assert early on in every new conversation that I was, in fact, a developer and not a booth babe or a recruiter.  But these days, I feel much more comfortable.  And do you know what's really helped with that?  Being a speaker; having my face on the website.  I don't have to prove I'm a developer, I was asked to speak at that conference - if the conference organisers think I belong there, then I belong there.
So… what.
Well, we can do things to combat this I-don't-belong-here feeling - I'm pretty sure we've all been there, regardless of gender, race, background etc.  To be honest, us geeks probably feel this more than most humans.  
Conferences and user groups and meet ups and so forth can all make life a little easier for those feeling this.  At the London Java Community, for example, we started having greeters at the door for our social events, to try and make everyone feel welcomed and to introduce people to each other.  I also liked what YOW did - they had a really informal social event at the end of the first day of the conference (with free booze, yay!) which made it relatively easy to mingle with other people.  FOSDEM, with its lack of free food and drink gave us less opportunities to mingle with people other than your own friends, although I did like the canteen area for random encounters.
But it's not just down to organisers of groups or events to solve this problem for us.  I've found that if you do feel like you don't belong, there's a way to get over that, and it's not to withdraw.  It's to get more involved.  Find the groups you feel most comfortable with (for me, it started at the LJC), find the medium that you're most comfortable with (in person meet-ups, e-mail, IRC, Twitter, whatever), and join in.  Have conversations.  Meet people.  Once you start to make friends you start to feel like you belong, and when you start to feel like you belong you can step up and do more.  You might even find yourself accidentally propelled into speaking at an international conference, and who knows where you find yourself after that?  Although I appreciate that's not for everyone.  The point is, find your comfort zone for entry and gradually push yourself more - as you find yourself more accepted and respected, you'll feel less like an outsider.  At the very least, you'll have friends to talk to at these sorts of events.
And don't be put off by a couple of bad experiences - you don't have to go back to that group, those people, that thing, but don't assume that all groups or events are like that.  I've been to a number of events, techy or otherwise, that I didn't feel at home with.  If, after two tries (in person, I'll give e-mails lists or chat rooms many more chances), I still don't get on with it, I try somewhere else.

There are still going to be times when you're not in your comfort zone, but this is probably healthy - pushing yourself a little leads to different opportunities.  And in my case, it reminded me what it was like to be an outsider, a newbie.  And that gives us greater empathy for people in that situation.