What Can Men Do

So, I wrote a long email to the London Java Community in answer to an excellent question: "What can men do to support Women in Technology?".

It's a bit of a brain dump, by no means comprehensive, and is in answer to a specific question in a specific context, but I've been asked to make the information public so it can be useful in a broader context. So here it is.

I know one of the reasons men feel strongly about this topic is because they do want to help and don't always know how, and can feel excluded when it's just presented as a women's issue.

As I've said in the past, the LJC was the community that mentored me, and those mentors were largely men: Barry, Martijn, Ben Evans, John Stevenson to name a few. These guys were not only open and friendly and willing to listen to me, they pushed me (hard!).

I don't have all the answers, of course, and there are lots of blogs and articles on the internet about this topic (if anyone finds any they like, feel free to post as a comment for all to see), but for me personally, my male mentors:

  • Listened to me, and made me feel like I had a valid opinion. They took things I said, assumed they were a valid hypothesis, and made changes based on what I'd said. I never felt like I had to change myself to fit in to the community. Barry etc added different types of events and different approaches to running events in order to accommodate feedback I'd given.
  • Pushed me - Barry included me in the Associates, simultaneously recognising my value to the community but also forcing me to be more active in running it and applying changes I thought were important. Martijn and Ben practically forced me to give short presentations at the LJC well before I was ready. But they also gave me loads of support, suggesting topics, checking through my slides in advance, giving me presentation hints and tips when I asked for them. They were right, I was ready, even when I felt like I wasn't. I've talked before about how this helped my career
  • Validated me - By co-presenting with me, these men who were more well known (maybe even respected šŸ˜‰ ) in the community (not just the LJC, but the global Java Community) not only gave me support to launch my own presenting career, but they also validated, there on stage, that I was someone to listen to. Martin Thompson, Todd Montgomery, Dan North, as well as those I've mentioned have all gone out of their way to co-present with me.

So, in answer to the question:

  1. If you're interested in supporting a Women in [some technology] group specifically, please do reach out to the organiser. Check what
    the goals are for the community, and offer support.
  2. If you're interested in supporting women in technology generally (or specific women you know), read the following points.
  • This is for everyone: When you see a woman at a technical event (community, conference, etc) assume she's a techie. I cannot tell you the number of times a man I was talking to at an LJC event assumed I was a recruiter or in HR because I was female. It is far better to assume the woman is a techie and be corrected if she is not, than to assume the other way around. And, please assume she is a competent, senior techie. Again, much better for a student to correct you and tell you she's junior, than for you to assume a seasoned architect is junior just because she's female. This is by far the easiest thing for you to change in your behaviour, and probably the most valuable thing you can do for the community to encourage women to simply turn up and keep turning up.
  • If you know someone who's interested in presenting, suggest she co-presents with you at a User Group event, internal company brown bag, community conference, etc. This is a great way to get started. Or suggest she does a lightning talk at a User Group (some conferences also offer Quickies for inexperienced speakers). If your local user group doesn't currently do lightning talks, I'm sure they can be started if there's interest. If you have the expertise, offer to check slides, and/or be there for a run-though of the talk in advance. This can even be over Skype or hangouts, there's no need to take loads of time to travel to meet in person
  • If you know women who you think would be great at writing, but who haven't started their own blog yet, offer a place for them to write for/with you. If you have a blog, they can write a guest post for you. Again, offer to check the content before it goes live. All of us are super nervous about our stuff being "good enough", receiving the green light from someone else is a nice confidence boost and helps us feel better about publishing something.
  • Mentor a woman. This is for anyone, male, female, non-gender-specific. Mentoring includes some of the activities mentioned above. Or it can be something more code-focused. Or helping them learn to play the politics of career (and believe me, techie roles and companies are still full of politics, especially if you want to get promoted). In fact, I recently read that what's really needed for women is Sponsorship, not Mentoring.

...male mentors tend to sponsor rather than just mentorā€”similar to the difference between coaching and selling. In fact... women may actually be over-mentored, but under-sponsored. And that sponsoringā€”advocating to get somebody a job or promotion, mentioning their name in an appointments meeting, actively helping that person advanceā€”is what makes the real difference in women helping women get ahead

Forbes: Can Women Succeed Without A Mentor? You have to be senior and visible (either in the community or in your organisation) to sponsor, but it makes a big difference to women's careers. I remember the one time I had a male sponsor in one of my jobs is the only time I got a promotion.

  • Just be encouraging. And while I personally have a real problem with being encouraging without sounding patronising (I dunno how to say something that doesn't sound patronising!), it's really important you try to be positive without being patronising or mentioning something gender related. I've heard comments like "it would be enough to say this talk was delivered by a beautiful lady packed with a room of geeks but it deserves more praise" (er, thanks?) and "It's so great to hear women give technical presentations!". Hmm. I know that's trying to be supportive but it does make you feel a bit... like an outsider, some sort of weird zoo animal. So, before you open your mouth, This One Simple Trick Can Save You From Embarrassment: would you say this to a man? If it would sound silly aimed at a male, re-phrase it until it sounds sensible.
  • If you're in a position to give feedback (e.g. at work a direct report, 360 reviews, or in the community someone who requests feedback), give actionable feedback.

Researchers have found that women receive more vague feedback and personality criticism in performance evaluations, whereas men receive actionable advice tied to business outcomes

The Real Reason Women Quit Tech And How To Address It

As you can imagine, it's much easier to improve with clear, actionable advice than with vague feedback.

Really importantly, if a woman enjoys being technical, encourage her to stay technical. Just because she has people skills as well doesn't mean she should be promoted away from code to management, or moved into a Scrum Master position. Just because she's a woman presenting or writing about technology, does not mean she wants to present or write about being a woman in technology.

Further reading:
I've already mentioned it, but this is excellent: The Real Reason Women Quit Tech And How To Address It. It contains links to tonnes of research in this area. Also:

If you made it this far.... well done!

You don't have to do all these things. But if you do care about diversity (and in my experience, I've met more white men who care about diversity than women who care about it, cos being a minority is sometimes helpful), read these and do something. Even if it's just that thing of assuming a woman you meet at a tech event is, in fact, a techie.

PS if you are a woman in technology and want to ask me anything, please feel free to drop me a line at any time. I have HORRIBLE e-mail latency but I will answer you eventually šŸ™‚


  • Trisha Gee

    Trisha is a software engineer, Java Champion and author. Trisha has developed Java applications for finance, manufacturing and non-profit organisations, and she's a lead developer advocate at Gradle.