How my Perception of Women in Tech Got Flipped Upside-Down in 15 Minutes

Before I begin, let me be clear on one thing: I am not a feminist. I’m fairly unsympathetic to the notion of women being unable to pursue their dreams in whatever capacity they choose simply because they’re women. I often roll my eyes at campaigns that cast women in a negative light alongside men – such as this anti-sexism spot by Pantene which recently made waves across the Internet — because it further perpetuates the stereotype that women ought to be considered an oppressed minority in the workplace. Totally understand there’s a world for that and that’s cool, just not my thing. Love what you do, own it, make goals for yourself and devote every waking second of your being to achieve them. Gender isn’t a deciding factor in one’s ability to get shit done.

Today I had the pleasure of sitting down over a ribs and pancakes brunch with Denise Jacobs (founder of Rawk The Web), who in one fell swoop changed my perception of supporting women in technology in 15 minutes of conversation. Denise is a passionate slave to ideas, and travels the world to share her thoughts on finding your bliss with creativity. She told me about a workshop she recently lead, mentoring women who are interested in becoming public speakers. Often feeling like I’m on the wrong side of the fence when it comes to defending my gender, I asked her thoughts on the uprising of female-focused Meetups and sessions encouraging women to enter creative and technology fields traditionally oversaturated with men.

What she said completely changed my mental model about supporting women in technology (paraphrasing, but here’s the gist);

“It’s not about negativity. It’s about showing up. It’s about letting these women see themselves in you. It’s about exposing them to situations they never even considered for themselves.

It’s like Kid President. Have you seen this? Until we had a black president, African-American children didn’t even know this was a possibility for them. The door wasn’t there. Now this kid, a black kid, knows he can be president one day because he sees himself in Obama. This is what we do for other women. We show them doors.”

mindblown

Up until this point, I had always felt like a fraud when anyone would sing my praises for being an influential woman in technology. Huh? Perhaps I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never faced any persecution in my career because of gender. Roadblocks and pitfalls yes, but none to do with my being a girl. But now I get it. I’ve always correlated the girl-in-tech initiatives with the negative stereotypes, and was never persuaded that girls needed help to stand out against men. I’ve always been neutral about the whole thing; it never bothered me, but I never got involved either. Today I learned I’ve been thinking about this all wrong, and it’s not about oppression; it’s about showing these women the options available to them through a connection with other capable women, and letting these girls see a reflection of themselves in us. Much like how a bird would never know it could fly without seeing another do the same.

During the course of brunch I did some introspection and remembered the first time I felt that “I can do it” connection via influence of another woman. Before I worked for Adobe I flew down to Adobe MAX (our biggest creativity conference) and was watching the keynote session. The speakers were primarily men, each who were masters of their field and spoke with authority and confidence. Following this line of influential speakers was Deepa Subramaniam, this tiny, elegant woman who killed her 15 minutes with the best of them. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow. Someday I want to be her.” It had less to do with her being a girl in a sea of men, and more to do with because she was a girl I could see myself in her, as a bird flying higher than I thought could be possible for myself. This experience opened up mental doors I didn’t even know were there. Honoured to say I spoke on the same stage, in the same spotlight, about a year later proudly showing off my work as Deepa did before me. Maybe if I’m lucky I was able to pay it forward to someone else.

I feel fortunate to have learned this separation of negativity and inspiration. The same concept is true for men inspiring men, successful students inspiring classmates, entrepreneurs inspiring startups and any other class seeing success in another member of that class. It’s powerful stuff. Maybe we should all take a moment and realize that there’s things we do that others can find inspiring, and help nurture the birds who don’t yet know they can fly.


256,105 total views, 28 views today

Posted on February 24, 2014 by Sarah · 12 comments

12 comments

  1. Garth Braithwaite
    - Reply

    This is excellent. I’ve been of the same mentality as you. My wife is every bit as talented a designer and I love supporting her in what she does. What I wonder is how can I help my daughters. I really want to encourage their creativity and teach them to love the tech community.

  2. Leanne Peasnall
    - Reply

    Well said Sarah! So proud of your accomplishments – you do your family proud just by being you. I love reading your blogs as they offer a fresh perspective and get me to question my own experiences and impact on others.

  3. Lea Verou
    - Reply

    I still don’t buy it. If people need to see others like them succeed in tech to realize it’s a possibility, where does it stop? Do I need to see a brunette woman succeed in tech, or would any woman suffice? What about a short woman, since I’m short too? Or, maybe I need to see a woman with a bad temper succeed, because I have one as well.
    Of course you would say that the above examples are silly, right? Then why do we make such a fuss about gender? To me it seems only slightly less insignificant than the above characteristics. I don’t need someone to be identical to to see what they do and have achieved as an option.
    Also, if the black kid needed Obama to realize that they can become a president too, who did Obama look up to? If women need women to look up to, who did Ada Lovelace have as her role model? Let’s not kid ourselves, those who will actually do something significant don’t struggle so much to find role models and motivation.
    Women have been raised in a patriarchal society that taught them to be weak and not believe in themselves. Instead of trying to fix that, we are trying to fix its effects, because it’s easier. And in the process, we are making things more difficult for women actually in tech. We’re not simply seen as developers any more, we’re seen as “female developers, WOOOW!”, because of all this movement, and I hate it.

    1. Sarah Author
      - Reply

      This isn’t what the post was about. I don’t buy into the whole inequality schpeel, and this isn’t about that. The point I was trying to make was disassociating perception of this girl-on-girl support with inequality and oppression, and understand there’s something to be said about appealing to the social bias of our psyches.

      It’s not about “because I’m a girl”, “because I’m black”, etc. It’s about reaching a deeper level of resonance through physical association (group bias).

  4. Edwina Moss
    - Reply

    I’m guessing Lea hasn’t heard the phrase “you can’t be what you don’t see”.

    “If people need to see others like them succeed in tech to realize it’s a possibility, where does it stop?”

    You make it sound like seeing someone who looks like them isn’t a point of motivation. Want to know where it stops? With small-minded hasty generalizations like this.

    Wow, Lea…way to miss the fscking point.

  5. RM
    - Reply

    Not all women in tech are young, thin and blond either.

    Some are older, chubby and equally talented…and, decidedly NOT blond.

    I’ve met some AMAZING women in tech who are, but most are not.

  6. Dee
    - Reply

    Great post Sarah! Though I would say that you ARE a feminist whether you like current connotations the label carries or not. The actual meaning of the word is simply that you think women should have the same rights that men. That’s it.

    To carry that a bit further, it also could mean you understand that some people might look at you as a young, blonde woman and assume you got your position because of your looks, where as a man in the same position would not likely have to deal with the same stigma. That’s where feminism steps in and says it’s not right that we have different standards, different pay and different expectations put on us. It’s just asking for a level playing field.

    As for Lea’s comment, I think it’s pretty far fetched to compare gender to hair colour. Comparing discrimination faced on the basis of race or gender to hair colour or height is laughable. We will get to the point where women are no longer singled out for being women in tech, but to pretend that it isn’t new, or special in some way is to pretend it’s always been that way. Celebrating the victorious gives hope to those still working their way in. Yes, there had to be a first and they didn’t have roll models, but does that mean it has to be that hard for each subsequent generation?

  7. hvm
    - Reply

    Recently I came across a presentation by Joy DeGruy on the effects of racism on people’s sense of identity and entitlement. I’d say her story applies to any group that’s discriminated. Having a black president or powerful women around makes a huge difference, but in the end it’s how we (learn to) view ourselves that decides whether we try and “get shit done” at all.

  8. Ateker
    - Reply

    Thanks Sarah, fantastic post! I get where you are coming from in this article and as an African kid born and raised in Scotland for part of my life Hvm’s mention of identity crisis does ring true. No matter how driven you are when there are those low times of road blocks and pitfalls. No matter who you are, there’s a good chance that you will look for positive guidance or inspiration and that will entail positive role models who have succeeded (and failed) but carried on.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *