On Becoming a Woman in Tech

I am a woman in the tech field, because I’m not sure there’s another field that I could have grown into.

When I was a small person, not very tall at all, I was the kind of kid who played with lego. I think I might have had a My Little Pony, maybe, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t have a barbie doll (although for one Christmas I did end up with some kind of a very pink hair salon type thing).

When I was a little taller, but still very small, I started to program. Bits of it, using logo to draw pictures. Then meticulously typing in programs from magazines for simple games, and the inevitable jump to making my own games.

By now, I was almost as tall as I am now, but not quite. The next step towards the career I have was a modem as a Christmas gift (: I BBS’ed for a few years, and, heavens, in 1995, I think, I ended up with an internet account through the university in Wellington (which is oddness in my timeline). International traffic was expensive, and I had a shell, so for a long time, the internet was a lot like email and IRC (:

Then I got PPP access. Oh boy! PPP! And Mosaic! And my very first homepage! (It was at http://tao.sans.vuw.ac.nz/~chrisfox clearly, very clearly, it is long gone) I’m told it was regarded as high falutin’ and fancy at the time. It had Javascript!

Which brings us to the end of high school, and figuring out what to study at at university. Chemistry and Computer Science were the two things I was considering as a major. Chemistry was going to take six thousand years of grad work before I’d do anything more complicated than cleaning test tubes. Computer Science, not so much. It’s a co-incidence that the computer science schedule was over three days, mostly in the afternoon. An amazing co-incidence.

So here I am, doing coder stuff professionally (Argh! I started working doing systems stuff at an ISP 10 years ago, now. I feel old). I don’t think anyone particularly intervened to push me here along the way; and I suspect that if they had I would have been resistant to participating.

I’m going to guess that it’s the kind path that most guys take to end up as a coder. Which makes it really hard for me to constructively help get other women to take the light path to coder.

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Rant in the Key of Women at Conferences

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The under-representation of women who work in technology is an important issue. It’s not one that I know how to fix. But one of the ways that it shows up, is in the lack of women who speak at conferences. I don’t know why women don’t speak at conferences in general; speaking for myself, I’m just not that great at public speaking (:

In the past couple of years, I have been to two stellar conferences (Webstock ’08, in Wellington; and BitNorth, just outside MontrĂ©al) and a few more that were okay-I-guess. This is what the gender breakdown of the amazing conferences looked like:

Webstock
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BitNorth
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I speculate that when conference organizers care about trying to fix the hard problems, they’re going to care about all of the little things that go into a conference.

I am not going to this one.
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I mentioned the absurd gender disparity of this conference to a (white, privileged, technical, male) friend of mine, in what turned into quite a surreal conversation.

me: (I count three of ladies.)
him: heh
that’s pretty common
ON one hand, i’d like to see a better balance
On the other, I’m kind of tired of hearing about “women in open source”
me: Did you, uh, complain about hearing women talking at conferences?
him: I complained about hearing about women talking at conferences about women talking at conferences

I am horrified that he felt that the content of womens’ talks was some how a way to rationalize the lack of women at a conference. I am also horrified that women feel the need to speak about their place in the technical eco-system that there is a perception that it’s the only thing they talk about (I don’t think I’ve ever been to a rah-rah women in technology talk, but I have heard women speak on all sorts of technical subjects). I remain horrified that he thought this was a position that was worth vigorously defending; and I have The Fear that this is a common perception.

And that makes me really fucking angry.