After reading the latest horror story of “woman’s STEM career gone bad,” I was particularly surprised by one of the reactions to the sordid account of former GitHub employee, Julie Horvath. When I posted the news report to one of my social media accounts, the only negative response came from another woman, a highly educated former classmate, who conveyed skepticism and her belief that Horvath might have attracted the harassment. I replied that unfortunately I didn’t find this story surprising at all, just depressing.
What I didn’t say was how disappointed I felt by the lack of empathy in her response; it felt like one more expression of personal scorn. I was accustomed to receiving this type of response in the male-dominated tech community. But I expected compassion, not suspicion, from my accomplished female acquaintance.
The worst thing about being a STEM woman is the professional loneliness I experience most days. It’s alienating to look out over a sea of male faces, never seeing myself mirrored back. At some jobs, it has been common for me to go entire days without ever interacting with another woman, unless working with administrative staff.
While there seems to be a few more women in IT, they still haven’t managed to permeate some of the more testosterone-laced domains, such as networking. And when I finally do manage to secure a spot on a technical team with another female, we don’t really know how to relate to each other. We’re a little like rare animals in a zoo that have never seen another member of their species, strangers to our own gender.
Some days I just need a sympathetic ear, but as smart and accomplished as many of my female friends are, the arcane rules of the tech world can be mystifying for an outsider. I could spend an hour explaining the engineering background to a problem at work, before ever getting to the real source of my frustration, which is usually interpersonal. When the punchline of the story comes, I’m often met with blank stares or silence. Or they'll ask, “Wait, what’s that VLAN tag thing and why didn’t you find it in the trunk of a switch?”
The workplace should be gender neutral, but women in IT need some coping mechanisms to help them survive until that hoped-for evolution occurs. Here are three:
1. Join a professional group. Most technical women aren’t in organizations large enough to form internal support groups, which only intensifies the isolation we feel. So it becomes critical for us to find encouragement using other avenues, such as Anita Borg Systers, a mailing list with over 4000 members from 54 different countries. There are local chapters of the Society of Women Engineersor even informal meetups. This can alleviate some of the stress of feeling cut off, with female colleagues offering professional advice, career opportunities and some much-needed compassion.
[Read why the most successful STEM women are those who ignore their detractors and confront challenges head-on in "Women In IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?"]
2. Find role models. And by role models, I don’t mean Sheryl Sandberg, who somehow has managed to become a media icon for women technologists even though she’s never written a line of code. My personal favorite is MIT alumna Radia Perlman, creator of the spanning tree algorithm, designer of IS-IS, and contributor to many of the core routing protocols of the Internet -- she’s humble, modest and very generous. Some others include: 451 Research director and analyst, Wendy Nather, security researcher and DARPA Fast Track grant recipient Georgia Weidman, self-described code monkey snipeyhead, aka Alison Gianotto, voice diva and fellow Network Computing contributor Amy Arnold, and wireless wunderkind Jennifer Huber.
3. Find a good mentor.Your mentor doesn’t have to be a woman, but should be someone who doesn’t give you bad advice or simply tell you what you want to hear. This should be an individual who will challenge and encourage you, pushing you to question assumptions you hold about yourself and your chosen discipline. Also, consider becoming a mentor to another STEM woman, because we’ll only improve the community by offering support to each other.
The greatest way everyone can help improve diversity in tech and foster gender neutrality is by avoiding the gender bashing that's so prevalent online. Let’s agree to make the discussions collaborative and respectful, avoiding the nasty downward spiral of criticism and negativity. If we want the conversation to evolve, it’s time to engage without aggression.
[Michele Chubirka will participate in a Women In Technology Panel and Luncheon at Interop April 3. The open forum will look at how to advance in an IT organization, keep your skills sharp, build fruitful relationships with colleagues, learn effective dispute resolution techniques, and build a mentoring network. And don't miss her other sessions at Interop, "Humans Aren't Computers: Effective Management Strategies For IT Leaders" and "Adventures in PCI Wonderland". Interop Las Vegas runs March 31-April 4.]