Where are the women in tech? Right here. And they’re organized and taking over.

PassionProjectTalksNotes

Illustrated notes from my talk at ELA Conf

“Not just to find your voice, but helping the woman next to you find hers,” said the organizers of the first ever ELA Conf during their opening remarks. ELA stands for “Empowerment, Leadership, Action” and it was organized by members of Girl Develop It! in Philadelphia this past weekend. This is the prevailing ethos that I have encountered ever since I timidly stepped into my first New York Tech Women meetup over two years ago. Back then I had the vague notion that I wanted to to shift from working in arts nonprofits to working in tech, but only knew about four people actually in the tech field. I felt like such an impostor walking into that first meetup, not knowing anyone. I thought, “No one is going to want to talk with me, I’m just in the arts.” The reaction was quite the opposite. I was welcomed with open arms and people commented that my arts experience was “cool.”

Two years later and I’m speaking at my first tech focused conference (not including SxSW, which I spoke at in 2014 just before I officially started working at a startup). While I’ve done extensive public speaking to artists, creative entrepreneurs and the handmade/craft community, since shifting to tech I’ve done very little speaking that isn’t directly tied to pitching my company. This fall I decided it was time to change that. I was excited about ELA Conf because it was not only offering women a platform to share their knowledge, but teach and encourage each other.

In short, ELA Conf was awesome.

Keynote speaker Saron Yitbarek, the founder of the Code Newbie podcast, talked about the importance of “punching your feelings in the face” when it came to fear around negotiating and asking for more. She reminded us that “Find your your power is a long and uncomfortable journey.” After years of education, work, negotiation, learning not to be afraid of negotiation or conflict (I’m still working on this), and pushing myself towards new opportunities, I can attest that, indeed, honing the ability to stand up for myself and trust that I am worth standing up for has been a long road.

Tracy Osborn, author of Hello Web App and founder of Wedding Lovely, captured a sentiment that I learned the hard way in my career, which is “Don’t wait until you are miserable [in a job] to inform yourself [about what other people at your company or in your industry are making and how much you are worth].” Every speaker was super on point. A panel of female founders talking real talk about how difficult it is to raise money as a woman and how they learned not to undervalue themselves and their businesses. I loved the femme power of Adrienne Lowe, who talked about being your authentic self in your tech talk and in tech, which for her means baking cookies and wearing her best dress.

PassionProjectNotes2

More great notes from my talk at ELA Conf

This conference resonated with me on a deeper level. Earlier in the fall I was lucky enough to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing with my company. The Grace Hopper conference is a valuable asset to the tech industry, but aside from meeting the most bad ass game developer ever, Brianna Wu, I found the conference was interesting professionally and from an industry standpoint, but fell flat on a personal level. For me, it’s grassroots conferences like ELA Conf where women working in tech can cut through the corporate hype and forge real connections. ELA Conf I got to get over being star struck and got to forge meaningful relationships with other women in my field. There was also a push to broaden what “women in tech” means, which I felt especially grateful for. As someone who does not work as a developer I do find it interesting that, as Gloria Bell said on a panel about redefining women in tech, “Men who work in tech in non-tech roles still consider themselves ‘in tech.” Many women consider themselves ‘tech adjacent.'” I am completely 100% guilty of perpetuating this disparity and feeling like “the other woman in tech” and I promise that after this weekend I no longer will be.

We met Brianna Wu!

Brianna Wu, my colleagues and I at the Grace Hopper Conference

And what did I talk about? Concrete, tactical steps for leveraging your passion project, whether that’s contributing to open source or making beef jerky or writing, to sustainably enhance your career and help you grow and follow (and feel good about) your own, unique path. This is the path I followed to shoehorn myself into community management and marketing roles in the tech industry and I admit that even though I’ve spoken extensively I felt nervous and asked myself “What do I possibly have to share that has not already been shared?” To my delight, I was welcomed and participants found my talk useful AND hilarious. Amazing. If you are curious, here are my (minimal) slides.

Corinne of GDI and Grow

Corinne, of Girl Develop It! bought a copy of my book, Grow

What this conference really showed me was the power of the personal story and how many women in tech, who come from very diverse backgrounds, also have a lot of common ground, from determination and grit to break into and stay in this field, to learning the hard way how to speak up and value themselves. And for me, I feel like this is exactly why I wanted to be a part of this community and exactly what I hoped to find. A surprising side benefit was that many women came up to me after my talk and told me they were also working in the arts and had similar frustrations about lack of opportunities and the glass ceilings they had encountered there.

While the larger tech world, just like the larger world, is hardly a feminist utopia, it’s awesome to find a pocket of people who have your back and you can have theirs. That’s what motivates me to keep pushing myself forward and learning and growing in my career. It really reinforced my idea that community is power and when you talk frankly about issues and take steps together to be critical and develop strategies to address them things can, will, and must change.

In addition, my whole tech experience has been working with awesome, smart and powerful women. I know this is not the reality in many companies and teams, but if I’ve seen anything at both ELA Conf and Grace Hopper (and the many women in tech and diversity in tech meetups and workshops I’ve been to and sponsored and supported this fall) it’s that if your company feels it lacks gender and racial diversity it is simply not looking hard enough or working hard enough to address cultural issues that keep people from joining or staying. There’s really no excuses. I feel that if the current tech culture doesn’t change it will simply be surpassed. Move over, mainstream, we are awesome, we are organized, and we are the current and future powerhouses of this industry.

And what’s awesome mean anyway? In the words of Chanelle Henry, who gave the closing remarks, “Being awesome is being your authentic self.”

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The Feminine Bias in Tech is Sexism

Sweetie Belle, my first new My Little Pony since circa 1989, joins the desk club

Somewhere in all of these memes lies a “woman in tech”

The other day I witnessed a conversation on Twitter where a woman who is a programmer commented on an admittedly girly and light hearted photo I had posted that I was unaware that there was a “feminine bias” in tech. The Tweeter quoted this excellent blog post exploring how the author, a programmer, is taken less seriously at tech conferences and in the tech world because she is feminine presenting than if she were masculine and androgynous presenting. For about two seconds I sat there in a huff and then fired off a note to my empathetic, techie, feminist, feminine coworker, “I think that nothing will help overcome the feminine bias in tech more than more feminine people in tech.”

A long time ago, back in the Riot Grrrl days when I was a teenager, I decided that glamor, femininity and fashion were powerful and could be tools that I could use to communicate my power to the world. Being both feminine and powerful was a way to reclaim power that is taken from women just because they are women. I decided that even if the world was not accustomed to reading feminine presenting people as “powerful” in ways that went beyond manipulative or overly sexual, I knew I was powerful and the world would just have to deal with me seriously, whether I was wearing a dress or jeans. Or a feather boa for that matter (though now my fashion choices tend towards Everlane basics, but I digress).

It's been awhile, but here's some awkward fashion documentation

Just another portrait of a woman in tech

Time out for two seconds: First of all, I don’t think “feminine presenting” needs to necessarily correspond with gender or sex. I am a feminine presenting person who also has a woman’s body and is very comfortable in that (this blog is called Killerfemme, after all), but who also understands that being a cis gendered person, as well as white and middle class, gives me a lot of privilege for how I can move through the world. Okay, that said, let’s continue.

To complain there is a “feminine bias” in tech and then to propose that the solution is to discourage women and anyone else who feels comfortable presenting as feminine from doing so is ridiculous. To propose that a way to reclaim power in a certain field where masculine presenting people are dominant is to play down one’s own femininity is gender policing and, quite frankly,sexism. Depending who the feminine presenting person is, it could also be homophobia or transphobia, and all of this certainly enforces a gender binary and the idea that somehow “masculinity” is more powerful than “femininity.”

If women are going to cut each other down for how they express themselves through clothes, makeup (or lack thereof), hair, shoes, attitude, and voice that’s just reinforcing the sexist cattiness that is expected of women. Solidarity does not mean silence, complicity, or bitchy critique. It means an honest dialogue and supporting people how they feel comfortable expressing themselves and their gender, no matter where on the spectrum that expression falls. In addition, if you are threatened by my skirts and heels, or dirty Converse and tech company t-shirt, I encourage you to examine your own perceptions of what a “woman in tech” “should be.”

The author of the Coding Like a Girl blog post, who goes by Sailor Mercury online (and makes some pretty bad ass zines, btw), discussed how her (male) partners assumed she was wearing dresses and makeup simply to please them. She wrote, “I was wearing them for me. And it was then, that I realized that continuing to wearing dresses just for myself was a totally valid way to say a big FUCK YOU to the patriarchy.” Right on, my sentiments exactly.

In so many ways this conversation so closely mirrors conversations I’ve witnessed and been a part of about “women in rock.” These conversations go on endlessly about how us ladies playing rock’n’roll are supposed  present to be powerful, cool, tough, and be taken seriously as musicians and it just sounds tired at this point. It does matter – do men in bands have to sit around and think carefully about what they will wear on stage so people will understand they are actually there to play music? Unless they specifically performing a certain kind of gender or character, probably not. Do men working in tech think all the time about what to wear to interviews or presentations so they will be taken seriously?

We have more to do than cut each other down and debate about what is the “appropriate” presentation – let’s take an honest look at all our own biases and get on with the real work here – eradicating sexism and injustice from the tech industry and from culture as a whole.

For extra inspiration, here’s a little Riot Grrrl snippet that reminded me that the feminine is powerful if we claim it as such…

(just substitute “girls who write” with “girls who code” for lyrics this song and you’ll get the picture… and maybe we’ll say “We are turning curly brackets into knives…”)