LISA '11 Boston: Women in Tech Panel

Last night I had the pleasure of serving on a panel on “Women in Tech” at the USENIX LISA 2011 conference in Boston. The panel was organized by Chris St. Pierre, moderated by Lois Bennett, and the panelists were Carolyn Rowland, Deb Nicholson, and myself.
Lois, Deb, Carolyn and I met for lunch the day of the panel to talk about the points we wanted to hit during the discussion. One of our goals for the session was to not just get awareness out about the issues women in technology face, or to tell our stories, but to come up with action items anyone attending the session could take away from it and put into place to help make the situation better. Lois put together a list of ‘feeder’ questions to get the conversation started and to fill in if there was a lull in the discussion. There weren’t any lulls, as it turned out, but it’s always good to be prepared 🙂
The talk was well-attended by women and men alike. We started out maybe 3/4 full and by the end of the panel it was standing-room-only.
Women of WiFi, after Caillebotte
Women of WiFi, after Caillebotte by Mike Licht,, on Flickr. Used under a CC-BY license.
Being the dork that I am, I took a lot of notes during the session; I kept two lists. One was a list of problems challenges & conversations (Nicole suggested “problem” might not be the best way to pose it 🙂 ), and one was a list of actionable items.

The Challenges & Conversations

  • Female identity in a male-dominated field Carolyn talked about how she had found herself becoming almost androgynous while she had been in an on-the-ground sysadmin role. Since she’d been promoted up to management, she’d started wearing more feminine clothing. The point came up, as part of Carolyn telling her story, that in IT more than other fields you can be who you are. Carolyn asked though, now that she thought consciously about even the way she dressed as a sysadmin, was she dressing that way because it was who she was, or was she dressing that way to fit in?
  • Working twice as hard to be seen as equal Carolyn also brought up the point that many times she felt she had to work twice as hard or else she wouldn’t be seen as equal by her male peers. A question from the audience regarding life-balance and the fact that women need to take maternity leaves while men don’t added to this topic. Carolyn talked about how she logged in and responded to work email only 40 hours after having one of her children to make sure her co-workers knew she was serious about her job and wasn’t going anywhere. Women in the audience brought up the concern that they might not have a job or their position might be different coming back after maternity leave.
  • Cultural differences between men and women Deb brought up the point that many times, bad behavior happens in IRC, mailing lists, or even in person – foul language, sexist jokes and other remarks, and general aggression. One audience member brought up the point that the men didn’t mean to offend or drive people away, it’s their culture and they were just having fun, but it seemed a lot of folks in the room agreed that kind of behavior is probably best left for the pub after work rather than in the office or working on a project. Carolyn talked about putting on her “game face” while going to meetings to make sure people would take her seriously, and that seemed to echo with a lot of women in the room. An audience member brought up a point that had come up during the panelists’ lunch meeting as well – women tend to say phrases like “I think,” or “I’m not sure” to qualify their statements, while men generally tend to be a bit more cavalier in the same statements. This audience member talked about how after she writes an email she goes through and removes all of the “I thinks” and “Well”‘s and similar qualifying language to make sure her message was stronger. Women adapt their communication to fit in better with the culture. Deb even mentioned that when working in male-dominated projects, she had to remind herself to not be as aggressive conversationally when she was at home or with friends and family – it was hard to make the switch between the two modes. Another difference between men and women that was brought up is that women tend to take things personally & internalize the type of commentary and banter that men take in stride.
  • Not everyone realizes that there is a problem We were, sadly, preaching to the choir at this session – folks self-selected themselves to show up to the panel. There seemed to be wide agreement in the room that there is a problem: however, even Carolyn admitted when she was first asked to participate in the panel, she said no because she didn’t think there was a problem.
  • The conflation of gender and intelligence This was a topic that Deb brought up during our pre-panel lunch, and a point that a male audience member’s anecdote made clear – there is a sad conflation of gender and intelligence regarding technical subjects. When we talk about making it easier for women to participate in a community, this sometimes gets conflated with ‘dumbing down’ the technical content, or introducing more beginner-level, introductory topics. One audience member mentioned that when hiring for technical positions, women didn’t typically get selected because they are never the top candidate in technical prowess (!) The conversation came back to the differences between men and women in communicating, however – Deb and Carolyn both pointed out that between a male and female candidate for the same position with the same skills, the man will likely sell himself more and make stronger claims about his technical skills than the woman, so it’s more of a perception problem than an actual difference in skills. Bottom line, just because you’re female doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage skill-wise, even though that perception sadly seemed to be alive and well.
  • It’s difficult to find female candidates On a similar thread, one challenge brought up by an audience member was that if they were lucky, they had a 10:1 ratio of female candidates for technical job positions. They didn’t know how to recruit more female candidates.
  • When there are so few women, the few that are there become not only representatives of themselves, but they also have the additional burden of becoming representatives of all female-kind. One male audience member brought up that whenever there was a group of children touring their office, he thought it was a positive that one of the few female employees walked the children around. A female audience member in the front, in rebuttal, said she’d rather a male walk the children around so they could see their female co-workers hard at work in front of a computer or other system and that they could serve as a better role-model that way. Deb talked about how being the only female in a group means the extra burden of always having to be the token female for these kind of outreach events. She pointed out that it’s important to serve as a role model, but you have to balance it with getting your job done. Nicole in the audience mentioned that she went out of her way to volunteer for anything she could, her own choice, because she wanted to serve as a role model to encourage more women. Carolyn gave the example of being one of the only women and being asked what color all of the women would like the women’s room should be painted in a building – how would she know? I found this point really interesting because I hadn’t really thought about it before. Deb pointed out that there have been studies that show you can even this out in your workforce / community if you can hit a 15-20% of female participation. At that point, there’s enough women to go around that it’s not a burden on any single woman.
  • Cultural change is slow For all the suggestions (they’re coming! I promise 🙂 ) we gave to the questions mostly male audience members asked us about increasing diversity, Carolyn gave a bit of a reality check by pointing out that while you can do these things we suggest, cultural change is slow, and it might be a long time before any of them might provide results. Cultural change is also hard, a point that seemed to be echoed by many audience participants.
  • A man and a woman working together raises more attention than two men Deb and Carolyn both pointed about that rumors tend to go around about a man and woman working together that no one would imagine ever thinking of if it were two men working together. “They must be sleeping together,” is something Carolyn said could go around. Deb also pointed out, when you’re the only woman on a team / in the office, whenever you need to get help or would like to get training from a team member, there isn’t any way you can do this without risking these kind of rumors. She pointed out that, “we just want to work in our office, not star in a drama about it.” The very act of getting trained risks these negative effects, Deb pointed out, such that it can limit a women’s upward mobility whereas this would not even be a concern for a man.
  • Not enough female role models There aren’t many strong female role models in technology. Not as many as there are men. One point that Lois and Carolyn brought up during our lunch is that they were raised to believe they could do anything they set their mind to. Lois pointed out that her mother was divorced in the 60’s. There were stigmas about women working in certain fields that were very real for our parents and grandparents, and we still are dealing with the cultural effects of them today.
  • Work-Life Balance A startup environment where you work 60+ hours a week is not an appealing environment for women to work in. For a young single guy, it may be appealing to have unlimited Mt. Dew, Doritos, and to be called a rockstar, but it’s not for many women.
  • Resources for Sysadmins vs. Coders A couple of audience members pointed out that there seems to be a lot more resources for female programmers than sysadmins. One mentioned that she was a developer primarily, but was also a backup sysadmin. While she really enjoys her sysadmin work and considering going full-time sysadmin, she couldn’t commit to being on-call 24/7. It couldn’t fit with her lifestyle – the theory here was developer jobs might be more appealing to women because they don’t come with the on-call burden.

11 Things You Can Do To Help Women in Technology

Since we had a goal of giving attendees some takeaways they could put into action, I jotted down some of the concrete suggestions that came up during our conversations:

  1. Don’t be quiet. If you see something that’s not right happening, say something. Whether it’s simply rude and jerk behavior happening on IRC or mailing lists, or something more serious like harassing comments, you need to stand up and say something. I can tell you from personal experience, when someone calls you out in say an IRC room and talks disparagingly to you, and no one else in the room says anything, it feels like the entire room full of people agrees with the comments. It can make you feel atomically small and completely unwelcome. Don’t just speak up for the sake of the folks being belittled or otherwise mistreated: if you want your team, office, or community to be more diverse and reap all of the benefits that come from that (there are many), you need to stick up for your culture and make sure it doesn’t become a toxic one. Folks misbehaving need to know that’s not cool in your community. Sometimes people have a bad day sure – but we could all use a reminder from time to time on the proper way to behave.
  2. Talk about the problem, help build awareness of it. Not everyone agrees there even is a problem with so few women in tech. I have heard people say it’s not a problem, that “women don’t like technology,” and even that they “aren’t naturally as good at it so they don’t do it.” Deb pointed out the difference between the ratio of women in free software projects from the FLOSSPOLS study (2%) versus the professional tech industry (~20%). She also pointed out, during our lunch, a study where female candidates were interviewed in one of two environments: a dorm-room like, soda-can and Dortios-infested ‘rockstar’ workspace, and a more neutral and professional environment with clean furniture. For the same technical position, more female candidates rejected job offers in the ‘rockstar’ environment, and far more accepted the offes in the more ‘professional’ environment. Does this tell you something about how the problem isn’t simply on the women’s side? Certainly, I believe some of the challenges listed above (e.g., communication aggression) stem from a monoculture lacking in diversity making it far more intimidating for women to participate than it should be. We could all benefit from improved communication. So talk about the problem with your team.
  3. Make training opportunities available Deb mentioned the touchy issues that can occur when the only woman in the office necessarily needs to be trained by a male co-worker, or even worse on a larger scale, when male co-workers as a result receive more and better training and end up more upwardly mobile than women. One solution to this problem is to make sure high-quality external training is made available both to male and female members of your team. Support the women on your team if they ask to go to a conference or external training or other opportunities to improve their skills. If there isn’t funding available for such opportunities, advocate for it at your company / in your project.
  4. Take the opportunity to serve as a female role model. Cultural change is difficult and slow, and I think it’s going to take all of us women in technology to stand up when we can and to show young women and even girls that they can succeed in technical jobs. At Red Hat, in many of our offices, we are involved in programs with local-area schools, and like Nicole, I try to get involved in these as often as I can. (Red Hat supported both a program Deb Nicholson and I planned to teach Girl Scouts how to use free & open source graphics software, as well as similar class at a local middle school my co-worker John Flanagan and I planned. ) I used to be the sort of person who didn’t think I could make these types of programs happen. If your job doesn’t offer these type of opportunities, ask about them. Talk to your local school. Put together a plan and a budget and see if your company will support it. It was a program just like one of these held at Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute (my alma mater) that really encouraged me to move forward in the field and study computer science. You can make a difference in a young women or girl’s life and help change their perception of our field.
  5. Watch your communication. This goes to both the men and the women. For the women, don’t sell yourself short. Do edit your emails, look through any “I thinks” and other qualifiers you may have listed, and see if you can’t adapt your writing a bit to the culture you’re in. For the men, I think you could watch your language as well. Look through your written language and see if you’re being unnecessarily aggressive or forceful in your communications. Also! Gender-neutral language is really important. As one audience member brought up, it can be a pain at first to train yourself to do it, but after a short training period, it will become natural. It makes a big difference, too. One male audience member brought up the point that he’d become involved in a mostly-female community, and it was a strange experience for him to, by default, be assumed to be a woman and to have to correct others in communications. “Welcome to our world” was my response to him. 🙂
  6. When holding ‘Women in Tech’ events, invite non-female supporters as well! An audience member mentioned that in the conference IRC channel, someone talked about how they didn’t go to the panel session because they weren’t a woman. Another audience member cited the GLBT community’s efforts to be inclusive of supporters who were not GLBT, and it was suggested we hold the panel at next year’s LISA with an ‘and friends’ or ‘and supporters’ tacked to the end of the title. If you are holding a similar event at your conference, consider the naming!
  7. Make sure your meetings are inclusive. Deb brought up the point that in meetings, sometimes the loudest / most aggressive attendees win and some folks never get a word in. Carolyn talked about how her team had taken Meyers-Briggs tests and they found out they had a very diverse group of Meyers-Briggs types, and that some of the introverts who liked to think more deeply before speaking were getting cut off by the extroverts. Deb suggested exploring alternative meeting formats, such as going around the room during the meeting to make sure everyone got to say something.
  8. Make your work more visible. I think it was Nicole in the audience who pointed out that if you’re doing your job as a sysadmin, your work is invisible. You should talk about your work and make sure folks know about the good you’re doing.
  9. Start a womens’ mentorship community at your company or in your project. Red Hat’s Womens’ Leadership Community has been something that has really helped me personally. I’m at the stage of my career where I’m running into some serious work-life balance issues, and meeting other women from the same industry who’ve faced and surmounted those kinds of challenges and being able to talk with them and get experienced advice has been really helpful for me. If your company or project doesn’t have a similar group, consider starting one; if it does, join! Lois mentioned starting such a group for LOPSA, so there’s one you can join right there.
  10. Review your recruitment process and make it more inclusive where you can. You could be driving away would-be female candidates and not realize it. Deb suggested that you take a look at your corporate website or your project’s website, for example. Do you have an executive leadership page with pictures of exclusively white males? This is a turn-off for female candidates. Try to promote the diversity you do have to attract more. If you have no women on your executive team, have pictures of the female leaders that do exist within your company, and tell their stories if you can. Try to use gender-neutral language on your website. Don’t talk about needing a ‘network guy’ – talk about needing a ‘network admin.’ Consider having internships targeted at women. Don’t just recruit in the usual places – you’re dealing with a pool you already know from experience is lacking women. Try female-oriented organizations like the Society for Women Engineers or similar.
  11. The medium is the message! (Marshall McLuhan 🙂 ) IRC and mailing lists can be less attractive to women than a more moderated communication medium such as blogs and forums. One way you can improve IRC, as Deb suggested, is to have more focused channels. Try to avoid off-topic conversations in the main channel and create an off-topic channel so those folks have a place to go if they need to. The thing is, it can be pretty intimidating to try to get involved in a project, go in the channel or on the mailing list, and instead of on-topic conversation, you see at best conversation about people and events you’re not familiar with, at worst sexist or otherwise offensive jokes and banter between friends (not intentionally offensive usually, of course.) Manage your communication channels accordingly, and consider supporting alternative communication mediums.

So there you go. I hope you can take something away from this summary. If this was TLDR (I understand, I truly do) just take away this one thing:

Things that make it easier for women to participate in your community make it easier for everyone to participate.

Thanks again to the folks who organized the panel; I had a great time and learned a lot from it!


  1. Re: 60+ hour weeks and on call 24/7
    I think it’s worth noting that it really doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t have statistics to prove it, but my impression is that this is not the way it is in the UK. Certainly in my institution, and with all the friends I have in the sysadmin field in other organisations (public and private), we work the standard 35-40 hour week and are rarely on call.
    Anything like the US situation would likely run up against European Union employment law, so I guess the norm across Europe is also lower (or lets say normal hours.
    Even before the EU rules came into force it wasn’t culturally normal to work longer hours than any other job.
    Perhaps this can be used as a precedent to argue that the culture of overworked sysadmins *can* be changed without the world coming to an end…

  2. Carolyn says:

    I think the #hours worked/week varies by employer, position and person. I have certainly worked with people who are more 8-5 focused and others who choose to be available 23.5×6.5 (you have to sleep sometime). There are employers who do not understand how overworked their people are so the people work to make up for lack of resources. It is situation-dependent.
    I don’t think this is particularly a gender issue (the length of the work day). Also, some employers pay overtime/comptime for hours over 40/week. It just depends.

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