On “Why Empowerment”

A twitter link to an NY Mag article on why “Events for ‘Powerful Women’ Don’t Empower Anyone” has caught my eye, and so I thought I’d answer the question.

First. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is *not* a bunch of rich, powerful women getting together to congratulate each other on being rich, powerful women. So it should really not be included in this grouping. It is an accessible conference for women in technology, getting together to learn about other women in technology.

Second. GHC is far from perfect. They have made missteps both spectacular and subtle. But it is extremely important that the conversations it sparks, personal and international, keep happening. The missteps perhaps aid this the most, together with the outspoken reaction from the women in tech who care about making a difference. I absolutely love how Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has responded his misstep. Real progress. Real coverage of the issue (albeit with some shoddy reporting, and ignoring that Maria Klawe set him straight right on the stage). Real change.

Third. Getting a group of technical women together to find out they’re not alone, to ease the acidity of the tech pipeline they’ve been rah-rahed into, to simply meet and know other inspiring women doing amazing things in a field we love—this is important. This is the core of GHC. It is not for talking heads or for endless complaints or empty self-congratulatory motions. It’s about connecting *us*. And slowly we’re turning those connections into strength and support and sheer volume to effect important changes.

I was lucky enough to go to GHC with a group of women from UofA back in 2008, including Ann Elizabeth. The news flare up following this year’s conference prompted this post from her, which I am honoured to have her permission to share. Read the whole thing.

Beware: Long Comment Ahead
Okay, so some of you may be aware that at one point in my life I was pursuing a degree in informatics from Dalhousie University. For many reasons I have never completed that program (some personal, some institutional, and some just because life doesn’t always go how you planned…) but one of the highlights of that time in my life were the Grace Hopper Celebrations of Women in Computing I was lucky enough to attend in 2007 and 2008. I don’t think men (or women) understand how freeing and inspiring it can be to go somewhere and finally see that you are not alone. That there are women in tech who are fun and confident and supportive and have a work-life balance that doesn’t make a scared university student cringe. It was a revelation and so very important to my development as a person.

As stated before I am not in tech anymore. I am not even in the workforce at this point. No one at Dalhousie or at any of the places I did my co-op work terms have ever followed up on me and asked me why it is that I left, and I think that is a shame because I could certainly tell them a few things that might make them understand their part in making me a statistic in female attrition in computing-related fields. But they didn’t. And why would they? For every one male “ally” I had in those places there were ten others making me feel like I was always “behind” or asking the dumb question or never going to succeed because of my gender. I cried for an hour in relief after the GHC 2008 Impostors Panel, but just knowing that there were other impostor syndrome sufferers out there didn’t help me learn how to combat it, and not feeling alone is only half the battle, you have to also have the tools to make being alone okay when you get back to the real, non-GHC world.

And so it was, I quietly shuffled myself out of the pipeline (cringe) and into a safe and easy environment where the pay was crap, my talents and knowledge were under utilized but the gender balance was completely in my comfort zone. It was soul-crushing in a completely different way than my brief computer science life had been, but it was more relatable. I could go out for drinks with friends and complain about my job in a way that made sense and had the girls around the table raising their glasses in understanding, not the confusion I got when I had previously turned to them for solace when a professor talked down to me while raising up the men in the room. Or when a male co-worker was embarrassed that a silly little girl had figured out and fixed and issue before he could and, instead of using this opportunity for knowledge exchange, picked out a random physical attribute of mine, made an inappropriate joke about it so that the attention was away from the accomplishment and in doing so, restored the good ole boys geek club and the delicate balance of the universe.

This isn’t about me anymore. Seriously. I’ve made my decision and it makes me sad sometimes, but I also know I am never going back. This year TPTB at GHC decided to host a panel of male tech allies, featuring among them the CEO of GoDaddy (an industry leader of classy treatment of women in advertising, so I imagine their corporate culture is just as inclusive and supportive) and other male People of Import. In theory, great plan, in practice I was incredibly skeptical. I mean seriously, these are industry leaders, not the rank and file. People don’t disagree with what they say, employees listen and nod supportively and then wait until the boss’ back is turned and go right back to the old behaviours which have been present and accepted in the tech industry since its advent. I thought a lot of what the panelists said was ridiculous and pandering and tone deaf and so many other unflattering things… but one of the things that was mocked heavily online (and by the makers of the amazing bingo cards that were handed out to audience members by a feminist organization also skeptical of the panel) were the panelists answers to why they care, why they are allies. Universally it was because of a female family member (mother, daughter, sister, whatever) and thinking that they wouldn’t want them to have to deal with this shit. Everyone wants people in charge to promote change for the sake of the greater good. They want to hear leaders say that they support it because women are equal to men and it just makes sense and this isn’t the 1920s and blah blah blah. No one wants to hear that they came to this position because they are human and it took the possibility of it affecting someone close to them to do the right thing. But they *are* human and with social justice issues it almost always take being personally affected to decide to take a stand.

I was quiet and coy and reserved and non-committal about my experience as a woman in technology but like these (misguided but earnest) men I have decided to change that because of a girl in my life. What if Jocelyn wants to be a programmer? An analyst? A project manager? Do I scare her with the realities that I faced? Do I subtly encourage her in a different, easier direction? Of course not. I already spend hours pouring over studies and articles learning how to encourage and compliment her in ways that will build her confidence and not be lip service and she is only five months old! I stay up at night worried about how I will help her and support her in math and sciences when I feel like a failure in those subjects myself. I read about girls in STEM and have huge dreams for her and pray that she has huge dreams for herself. I live in fear that I am a poor role model because I “gave up” or “washed out” or am “just a stay at home mom” and “let my husband’s career come first”. Being the mother of a daughter has awakened all the same insecurities I had as a woman in tech and amplified them in ways I never thought possible. But it has also given me something to fight for. I didn’t value myself enough to think that the fight was worth it, but you damn well better believe that the fight is worth it to me now. So I want to say thank you to GHC, to the male allies panelists, to the dissenters and the bingo card creators and everyone who is at least willing to have the conversation. I want to say thank you to the women in tech who are amazing and strong and supportive everyday; women like Kelly Lyons and Eleni Stroulia, Carrie Gates and Kate Patterson, Neesha Desai and Jacqueline Smith and Kim Beaudin and Stephanie Creaser and so many others I am friends with but am forgetting. Also thank you to the men in the world that are always allies for women in technology, like Liam Spencer and Jacob Slonim and Mike Smit. Change, as always, will be slow, but I know that we can do it. If only for the women and girls in our lives.

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