Friends, let's talk.
It has been a hard year for everyone, and something that happens in hard years is that we have less patience for little annoyances because all our energy is spent keeping... /gestures at everything/ at bay.
So I've been seeing more and more women in tech, who normally put up with all kinds of little pieces of everyday sexism, start to crack. They're starting to wonder if tech is right for them, if everything companies say are just designed to keep them quiet, and to question how they can "be the change" while still keeping themselves sane in environments where they feel unwelcome and sometimes under active attack.
This piece is not aimed at those women. They've had enough of people telling them how they can adjust their attitudes, or (almost worse) pointless platitudes of how they've "got this". None of that solves the problem.
This piece is also not aimed at any men looking for some feminist boogeyman to rail against. Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm just trying to make everyone nicer to each other.
This piece is for the male colleagues and managers out there who want to help but don't know what they can do to make the workplace more friendly for women. Let me help you help this industry to become better.
(P.S. Yes I will turn this into a talk for your next conference, just ask.)
- Don't interrupt: So you think you don't interrupt women? OK, the next time you talk to a woman, especially in the workplace, try to be really conscious of it and see if you catch yourself about to do it. If you don't: great! Congratulations! Now, listen to others and if you notice a colleague doing the interrupting, maybe drop a "Hey I don't think Sarah was done just yet... sorry Sarah what were you saying?".
- Lift up women's voices and take an active interest in them: Along similar lines, try to notice when women's opinions are being dismissed too soon or not considered in a way which would happen for a male counterpart. In some really bad workplace cultures, you might notice women not speaking up much at all: most likely, they have learned it is pointless. Make an effort to talk to them after the meeting and pick their brains: Do they agree with the conclusion which was reached? Do they think there was anything missed? Sometimes a 1-on-1 chat with a friendly colleague is less intimidating than a room full of people who don't look like you and treat you as either a token or an annoyance (...or both). Doing this in a meeting could seem confrontational rather than friendly and interested, so these conversations are best had individually.
- Understand that you don't understand: If are not a woman, then you don't understand what it's like to be a woman in the workplace. For one thing, most of us have developed an instinct for when someone is just a generally condescending person vs when they are being condescending because of our gender. It is hard to understand, especially if you're not a minority of any kind, because you haven't felt it. That's OK: you might not 'get it' and it might sound weird/paranoid to you, but that's because you haven't lived it. There is no shame in not understanding, but don't let that lack of understanding lead to a lack of believing. I don't know what it's like to be a man aiming your pee at a stain on the urinal, and it sounds ridiculous to me, but I believe y'all when you tell me it happens.
- Don't constantly bring up gender: Did you know that reminding someone of negative stereotypes against them worsens their performance? It's a known phenomenon called stereotype threat. I know how it seems to you: "I'm lifting her up! Pointing out that she's got it, despite being the only woman on our team!". It is not lifting her up, it is reminding her that she is alone and that there is an implicit expectation that she will do poorly. Calling her a pioneer or a trailblazer is probably historically inaccurate, slightly patronising (she's just doing her job, after all...), and also puts a lot of pressure on her. Ever read this xkcd comic? You're doing the same thing in reverse. The woman you work with is not responsible for representing all women everywhere, and putting that on her makes her less likely to be ready to admit mistakes, learn, and grow. At the same time, she's more likely to make those mistakes because she wants to be perfect so she can "prove" that women aren't shit at tech.
- Actively compliment women's skills: Anyone who has followed me for a while knows that I'm a big fan of giving genuine compliments to everyone, but it is especially important for women to know that they are being recognised for their skills, results, and technical knowledge, and not just for how they look.
- Call out sexism when you see or hear it: It is hard to be the party pooper, to be the awkward one to ruin the mood. Sorry, but you have to call out sexist talk when you hear it. It sucks. It's hard. It feels super awkward. But it is worth doing because it stamps out a culture that can fester into something truly putrid for your women colleagues. There are also many, many cases of women being pushed out of jobs for "lack of culture fit" when they speak up about these issues: so take the task off their hands. If you're not sure how, try: "Come on, you know better than that" or "Don't be that guy". If neither of these gets the point across, then try "How do you think that kind of talk makes our women colleagues feel?".
- Talk openly about your salary: So you're confident everyone in your workplace is being paid appropriately based on their experience? Great! Then there should be no problem talking openly about salaries. Honestly, this is a good thing for all workers regardless of gender, but if you keep this habit as you move up through the ranks you might be surprised at how different those numbers can be. Even if you believe that these differences come down to salary negotiation skills, you being open about your income could give a female colleague the push she needs to ask for what she's worth.
- Give credit where credit is due, even if it hurts you: I really, really hope this situation never happens to you, but if you are about to get praise for an idea that sprung from the mind of a female colleague, please do the honourable thing and say that to your manager, director, colleague, whoever is paying you the compliment. Too often, women's ideas are coopted by others and she doesn't receive the credit she's due. If somehow you end up being the benefactor, then you can be a good ally by owning up to it: even if that means your wallet might take a hit. Sure, it's not your fault someone got it wrong: but it is your fault if you don't set it right.
- Watch out for jokes that sting: You know the kind of jokes I mean, and you can probably see the women around you tighten their lips, fidget awkwardly, or suddenly be distracted by their phones or something outside the window. Plenty of women won't say anything: that doesn't mean they're comfortable. You need to shut these jokes down. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it takes the pressure off the women in your workplace, because most likely they feel awkward about saying anything for fear of being branded a "bitch", a "nag", or "difficult". If you accidentally said a sexist joke or overstepped the lines of professionalism yourself, then the best thing you can do is to openly apologise (not just to the women, but to anyone present) and commit yourself to not doing the same again.
- When you do these things, don't put it back on the women around you: Listening to women's voices and opinions is not the same as forcing them to speak to others about issues of equality. Just because Miriam told you over coffee that she's sick of Jeff's jokes, that doesn't mean calling out Jeff's jokes and ending on "Right Miriam? I know you're sick of them!". Do your best not to put women into awkward positions professionally or socially. Your heart might be in the right place, but remember this is about making women feel more comfortable in the workplace.
- Bonus tip: Follow women in tech on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, blogs, etc.: This is an easy one to do and let's face facts: you're doing it right now! Amazing! Go out of your way to find women to follow, ensure you're hearing their voices, try reading books about these issues, and how tech is not an objective industry run by objective people working with objective data.
Not sure where to find women in tech to follow on Twitter? Try starting with some of the women in this thread:
If you are a man or a person of any gender in a position of power at a workplace, then your voice is going to be heard in a way that is different to a woman who is a junior developer, for example. You might say the exact same things, but where she's seen as a PITA, you're seen as 'woke' or a 'bleeding heart' or 'defending your colleagues' or similar, depending on who you ask.
Please use this power for good. Back up your women colleagues, listen to them, ensure they are heard and valued for the right reasons. Don't put pressure on them to represent women everywhere. In the end, most women just want to do the work, have a good time with their colleagues, and not have to be bothered by reminders that they are still, in 2020, often stereotyped as less capable.
The time has come for all of us, and particularly men, to stop saying it's all fair, and start making sure it's all fair.