When news of the 2018 Women in Tech Regatta was posted in one of our Slack channels back in December, we saw an opportunity to get involved in an important movement in our industry and jumped on it. This was one way as a company we could better understand the issues surrounding gender and sexuality people face in the workplace, and tailor our culture and programs accordingly.
After many months of discouraging stories in the media, it was refreshing to see an event that focused on the positive and dynamic. From incidents like Gamergate to Susan Fowler’s account of her year at Uber and the Darwinian email musings of a (now ex-) Google engineer, women have been conditioned to expect little from the tech industry but rampant sexism, lowered expectations and “bro culture.” The constant thread that runs through these stories about women in tech is: “You’re not welcome here.”
On a personal level, I was curious. I struggle to define the subtle ways in which professional women are undermined both externally and internally. My shadows of doubt live in liminal space. Like Alice peering through the looking glass, I can see indistinct shapes in the periphery that slide away when I try to bring them into focus. So the opportunity to step through to the other side to get a better look was an appealing one.
Breaking the silence
From this side of the looking glass, it’s hard to know what’s within and outside of our control. And it’s easy to blame ourselves. Women in tech generally make less than men? Well, we should learn to speak up and negotiate better. Fewer women than men are on boards or positions of executive leadership? Sorry, I’m not willing to forego a family or my health to work those kinds of hours. Self-blame is a solitary pursuit, and it’s easy to feel like it’s up to you to muddle through alone.
Breaking that silence and sharing our experiences is the first step to developing the vocabulary to better define the problems. Only then can we together figure out solutions that ultimately empower both women and men. My colleagues’ eagerness to attend the Regatta signalled a shared desire to learn more and be active participants in the solutions.
Finding a collective solution requires listening. And we thought, what better way to tune in than show up and use Thoughtexchange to learn what was on everyone’s mind?
We attended many of the 22 breakout sessions held over the course of five days in Vancouver and ran an exchange that asked over 500 attendees this question: “What are the most important things we can do to attract, support and develop women in technology?”
Two key themes emerged over the course of the week in both the exchange and the sessions.
The top thought of the exchange was about mentorship of women by senior leadership, of any gender. Most senior leaders in tech are men, and bias tends to steer us in the direction of those most like us (or how we think we are). For change to happen, senior leaders have to make conscious decisions to mentor women for leadership roles.
Mentorship was also a key theme in the conference content throughout the week. The session “The Right Crew: Secrets to a Successful Ally/Mentee Partnership” featured three pairs of mentors/mentees, including Marco DeMiroz from the VR Fund and Martina Welkhoff of Women in XR.
As DeMiroz explained during the session, he didn’t see their relationship as a unidirectional mentorship.“I learn as much from her as she does from me, maybe more,” he said. “We have a collaboration.”
Other panelists from SAP and HyperWallet also steered away from the notion of traditional, top-down mentorship. Instead, they used words like “ally,” “guide” and “advocate” to highlight the collaborative and mutually beneficial nature of these relationships.
Each mentee spoke to the value of having someone with more experience and knowledge as a sounding board and workplace ally. Having a mentor in their corner helped them make connections and develop skills like networking, conflict resolution and directing meetings. For their part, mentors said the collaborations brought them inspiration, energy and a feeling of purpose.
That said, the fact that all the mentors were male and the mentees female didn’t escape the audience’s notice. When the panelists were asked if the configuration was on purpose or simply a reflection of the reality of the industry, the answer was both. It’s up to both men and women to grow the next generation of female leadership now, so they can then pay it forward.
Danger: Binary thinking ahead!
Another key sentiment that emerged was that binary stereotypes of what men and women are “good at” doesn’t help either gender.
For example, the societal assumption that women are the natural primary caregivers for children in turn discounts the idea of men as complete co-parents. If widespread, gender-neutral parental leave were put into practice, it would only strengthen equality and equity between the sexes—both at home and in the workplace.
The same could be said about encouraging women to pursue careers in science and technology. Ironically, it’s sometimes the focus on the exceptionality that turns women off. The thought below captures the sentiment nicely:
Interestingly uncomfortable conversations
There was some great diversity of thought amongst attendees, which made for interestingly uncomfortable conversations at times! While recognizing the under-representation of women in tech, especially in highly paid technical or senior leadership roles, one of the focus groups I was in pushed back on the notion that external forces were to blame for a lack of female representation.
These women chose to focus on what they could control: their performance, communication around compensation and their competitiveness in the labour market. Rather than succumb to imposter syndrome, they challenged themselves and others to take a seat at the table. Interestingly, all the women in that small but vocal group (including myself) were born outside the country. Growing up with “otherness” gave us a thicker skin—or maybe we were driven by general terror of our parents more than Canadian-born kids!
The most heartening thing about attending the WiT Regatta was hearing from women who wanted to create positive change and who were taking action to support women in technology. Event founder Melody Biringer, for example, decided to bring the event from Seattle to Vancouver. She didn’t wait for permission. She saw an opportunity and a need to be met, and went ahead and drove it into existence.
Whether you’re creating an event like Melody, developing internal mentorship programs or choosing to invest specifically in female-led startups, action is the best changemaker. Meeting people who epitomized this—like Marco DeMiroz who refuses to speak on conference panels if they don’t have equal gender representation—was a personal shot in the arm for me.
We all have a role to play. I’m doing my own small part by Slack-coaching a group of (mostly) women at Thoughtexchange who have an interest in project management certification.
Ultimately, we all need to be involved in listening, sharing and taking action to collectively transform the gender equity landscape in tech. So, what are you going to do about it?