In 1997, I attended the Grace Hopper Conference for the first time. I was already quite accomplished in my career. My first startup had been acquired. I had worked as a software developer on both After Effects and Shockwave. My code was used by hundreds of millions of people. I believed that I had eradicated all impostor syndrome issues.
The Grace Hopper “celebration of women in technology” was then held every three years. There were a few men scattered about the conference, but every speaker was a woman and every talk was a technical talk. I sat there, surrounded by more technical women than I had every seen in my whole life. I listened to talk after talk that stretched my technical abilities. I remember ones about parallel processing, new compiler tech and how one researcher was making chips to sequence genomes. It was amazing. This was a great conference independent of the gender of its speakers and audience. I started to think about the innovative work I was doing and what parts of it might stand out and be interesting to speak about. I caught myself thinking: “I could do that.” And then I snapped to attention: I had never realized that I had been holding myself back.
Later as I searched for role models, I struggled to find well-known women who were pursuing a technical leadership role where they would continue to “do the work” rather than pursuing a management track. Often, I would suddenly realize in a conversation with a male engineer that I served as an “existence proof” of a competent woman engineer.
There’s a lot of research that supports the need for more, visible women (ditto for other unrepresented minorities). The stereotype threat, where simply being reminded that you are part of a negatively stereotyped group can cause your performance to falter, is easily enacted when you see no one like you on stage, and few like you in the audience. Not to mention, the simple discomfort of a professional conversation mistaken for sexual invitation. The book Women Don’t Ask referenced research that showed: if there are less than 30% of a visible minority, and someone from that minority speaks, most people (both from the majority and minority group) will assume that person speaks as a representative of their minority group. XKCD has a delightful illustration of this phenomenon.
When Sarah Mei and I started the RailsBridge workshops, we had a hypothesis that there could be a simple solution to this problem. Statistically there were more women engineers in the SF Bay Area than there were Ruby engineers, which may still be true today. I had been wanting to learn Ruby for a few years before I did. There’s alway new tech that we all want to learn. What if, we simply taught more women Ruby… could we change the balance? Sarah Mei gave a great talk on how that succeeded.
For the first workshop, we struggled to come up with women teachers. Of course, those we found or remembered, had been there all along, but had stopped attending the male-dominated events. There were women in the community — not 50% by far, but a lot more than the 3% we were seeing. Once the workshops created a community where women felt welcome, more women started coming to the meetups. These events are social, as well as professional development opportunities. Research supports that people don’t learn well when they feel uncomfortable. Experienced engineers don’t actually need meetup events or conferences in order to learn new tech. However, I believe the conferences need us. The industry needs us to be visible and outspoken or we will never overcome the very real, though often unintended, sexism and racism that exists in the world today.