This is partly inspired by the recent #StackOverflowPodcast episode in which Jon Skeet and the some of the Stack Overflow women talk about the Feminist movement and what it’s means to them. It’s also partly because my wife is out of the house, and wanted me to do some painting while she was away. And well… paint has to dry.
So I’m not going to even “go there” in terms of the movement in general, where I stand, or anything really deep, because it’s a huge iceberg of a topic and I can’t do anywhere near justice to it. Even the discussion above was pretty basic & high-level, but they give lots of links in the show-notes to truly deep-dive into, if you feel like it.
One burning question, essentially, boils down to this:
Why is there still a striking disproportion of females in the Data Professionals career space (and, more broadly, the IT/Dev space in general)?
And like so many questions I ask here, I won’t actually have an answer for you (that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?). Instead, I’ll simply reflect on my own (very limited) experience in working with women in tech, and hopefully get your thoughts in the comments as well!
In a very small software shop, there were actually no women for a time. But shortly before I was hired, they brought on a husband & wife team – two developers who were excellent at what they did, and had, surprisingly, broken the stereotype of “spouses can never work together”. She was so easy to work with, and I think my experience here helped me at least start to understand some of the nuances around “women in tech” and what it all meant. Basically, she wanted to be treated just like “one of the guys” — which, I understand now, is, in itself, an anti-feminist phrase, but back then I wouldn’t have known — and it reflects the culture of the time, which is that this was a team of mostly male developers and we were still “finding our way” on the long trail of equality in the workplace.
So what this meant, in practical terms, was a couple things:
- No bias for job-assignments of things like documentation, task management, or communication-centric tasks. While yes, she was actually quite good at these, and would later become the de-facto PM and Scrum-master for us, it was understood (and probably stated) that this was not “because she was female”, this was because she was the best at it. But again, is that specifically because she’s a woman? I don’t think so.
- Addressing the group as “you guys” was perfectly acceptable.
- Pay was equal – at least between the equivalent roles & seniority levels (e.g. her & her spouse). You don’t typically share or discuss salaries among peers, but we knew, and our bookkeeper ensured, that this was true. Because if it wasn’t, someone would’ve had some words about it.
Also, there were a few positive aspects of the culture that helped make it more equality-apparent, which I think were just byproducts of the quality of people hired. We didn’t do “dirty jokes” or have sexist (even unintentionally) discussions, nor did we engage in gossip or any kind of “just the guys” activities. We really just did the work and kept it professional, and any time we were outside the office together, it was almost always shop-talk. I think that’s the nature of a startup — you really don’t have time for anything else, any of the “fluff” or crud that spawns from idle hands & minds.
But it wasn’t all roses & sunshine.
A New Female Developer Candidate
After that dev moved on, we knew we had to replace her. And the company workload was pivoting a bit, so our candidate criteria weren’t the same as those of her position. But putting it that way makes it sound like we were either specifically looking for someone different, or that we had moved somebody else into her position and now had a completely different role to fill. Neither is the case, really; with a startup that’s organically growing and shifting, you don’t get the luxury of well-defined roles. You basically need what the business and the team needs at the time, and that becomes your reality, until it’s not, and your team pivots again to fill the new mold, learning & growing along the way.
So anyway, we were hiring for a somewhat nebulous developer position. And one of the candidates we saw was female. We did not end up hiring her — unfortunately, in my opinion. That’s not to say the candidate we did hire was bad; he was great too, that’s just not relevant here. After her interview, the discussions we had were interesting. And I think it would have been greatly beneficial if the previous dev (the woman I talked about above & who had left recently) could have been present to offer her insight into the hiring process; but she, understandably, was not available & already busy with her new stuff.
This new candidate had a good deal of “embedded systems programming” background, which was interesting because it was not at all what our software was about, but in hindsight, probably could have proved valuable in making our SDLC processes leaner & more efficient. She also had great general tech skills and was a quick learner. But ultimately the reasons not to hire came down to the dissimilarity of background vs our product, AND her personality as we perceived it — in a word, she was “nervous” and “not confident”.
This is a big failure, in terms of equality/feminism.
And as I said, this is all purely hindsight. None of us realized at the time what we actually meant. But that’s no excuse, just history. So let’s unpack that a bit. Or, in other words…
Of course she was nervous! She was A) in an interview, and B) surrounded by men. It’s not like we said anything or acted in a way that was actually misogynistic; we’d like to think we’d learned how to be open & equality-centric enough that anybody would feel welcome and able to talk about their experience and why they’re a good fit for the job & the company. We didn’t even have much of a “culture” to speak of — it’s not like we were a big enough team to even have cliques or established norms, we just kinda discussed our work, did the work, collaborated on the work, and went home at the end of the day to our families/friends. However, in the same breath, we DID have a “culture”, in the sense that we were a small tight-knit team (while in the office) with a set of personalities that, so far, worked very well together; and on a small team, personality-compatibility is important.
Anyway, here’s the crux. We didn’t even recognize that what we were saying was, underneath, an anti-equality statement:
She should have been more self-confident than the average male candidate, in an interview, in order to meet our expectations.
Now obviously, if you ask the hiring manager (aka owner/CEO/president/founder) of the company and the HR person, they’ll agree (rightfully so) that she was not hired due to the gap in technical experience & the fact that her skills did not fit with what we needed. And this is true, as I said before; we were doing web-based software in ASP.NET, with a SQL back-end, and none of those were at the top of her skill-set. So I’m not self-flagellating for us passing on her as a candidate. (Again, the person we did hire worked out just fine.)
I’m acknowledging, and apologizing for, the fact that we elevated her (completely understandable) personality/disposition to an artificially high importance in our discussion about the candidate.
That, I think, is what an equality-minded leader would try to make sure we avoid next time. If she had had very similar experience and skills to the next candidate, we should have certainly hired her. And if I were to retroactively predict the past-future (breaking all kinds of grammatical rules in the process), had she been hired, she’d have “come out of her shell” and gotten along swimmingly with the team & the work.
But again, this is all ancient history by now; it’s not like we can go back and change our decisions. We just need to be conscious of them and learn from them.