A Sanguine Neurastheniac

Gender, Technology, and the Desk Job

April 22, 2011 · 2 Comments

I’m inspired by the speakers at Textile Messages earlier tonight, an event about e-textiles organized by Yasmin Kafai at UPenn.  One of the speakers, Leah Buechley, developer of the Lilypad Arduino, is also speaking tomorrow at a UArts/Hive76 event that I wish I could make it to.  The Lilypad took the Arduino idea and put it in a sewable form that gave e-textiles a big kick in the pants.  E-textiles or soft circuits are exciting for a lot a reasons that deserve their own exploration, but suffice it to say that what gets me gesticulating excitedly is the idea of mashing up different audiences with fluency in different technologies.  Putting electronics in crafts/clothing/sewing gives it a new accessibility, and gives it access to new creative thinkers.  By clearing a path for crafters and sewers to start thinking about conductivity and sensors, soft circuits make space for electronics (especially sensors) in the minds of people with different expertise.  Soft circuits (and play dough circuits and slime circuits) give electronics a new physical vocabulary.

As a result, conductivity and computing are undergoing an invigorating re-think.  Crafters don’t think about circuits the same way electrical engineers do, and they are free to ask new and compelling questions and demand innovative solutions.

Anyway, that’s a whole ‘nother thing but one undeniable outcome of the e-textile movement is that it has massively increased womens’ use of microcontrollers.  According to Leah’s dissertation, makers of high-visibility projects with Arduino are about 86% male and 2% female, while Lilypad user are 25% male and 65% female.  (The genders of the rest of the users couldn’t be determined.)  You can read more of Leah and Benjamin Mako Hill’s work over here.

So it got me thinking again about gender and tech, which is coming up a lot this year.  There’s some big stuff in the works.  I’ve been meaning to post my notes from the UN panel that I spoke on in March, and now’s a good time to start. The talk is split into 3 sections about the professional, volunteer, and leadership positions I’ve been in.  Here, I’ll start with the professional bit.

But first, please enjoy this awesome NSF-funded study called “Stemming the Tide:  Why Women Leave Engineering” and the author’s great summary.  A hat-tip to Tracey Welson-Rossman from TechGirlz who hipped me to the study:

As noted in our research, it’s a myth that women undertake rigorous educational training and join the workforce only to quit their jobs for ‘lifestyle reasons.’ Most cannot afford to or even want to quit. Stymied by long-standing institutional and structural barriers and entrenched gender stereotypes at work, many women professionals often alter their career trajectories and seek to satisfy their career ambitions in workplaces that respect, promote, and leverage their skills and talents. Again, not very different from what men do.

Ok.  Now on to my 2 cents about it as a woman and sysadmin.

Good afternoon, I’m Stephanie Alarcon.  I’m a systems administrator for the University of Pennsylvania Library System, which basically means that I babysit servers.  Over the years I’ve volunteered with independent media and social justice organizations, in particular the Prometheus Radio Project.  They advocate for community radio and have a strong foundation in appropriate technology, and through them I learned a lot about how to teach techy stuff.  I’m  also on the board of a cooperative technology workshop, or hackerspace, called Hive76 in Philadelphia.  It’s a young organization, so we’re an active board.  Right now I’m the only woman who’s regularly involved and it’s getting a little lonely, so I’m trying to change that.

I’m going to draw from my experiences as an IT professional, a volunteer tech educator, and an elected leader to share some  lessons I’ve picked up about increasing womens’ engagement with technology.

The idea I want to talk about today is that context is everything when you’re dealing with the barriers between women and STEM. Some situations make it easier to get technology in women’s hands, and some make it harder.

I’ll start with the desk job.  I’ve worked in both large and small companies, and finally now in academia, and I’ve found that the best strategy for me has been to be cordial and relaxed, but have high expectations of my colleagues.

Let’s set the scene for the professional IT context.  Workplace cultures range from a bullpen of good ol’ boys to diverse, integrated offices–and in the case of librarians, wonderfully eccentric.  I’ve found that I’ve been most uncomfortable in small companies, while academia has been the best experience so far, both in terms of people’s behavior and in having women colleagues.  My experience of feeling less gendered in bigger, more homogenized institutions is oddly reminiscent of a stat that women constitute 1.5% of the open source community, but 28% of the proprietary software ecosystem.  (Read more in this FLOSSPOLS research paper.)  I’d like to say that I feel better in small groups and sometimes that’s true, but there’s more opportunity for a cult of unsavory personality in little ponds.

Most workplaces have at least a  subtext of basic professionalism that you can call on, by way of their employee handbook and fear of being sued.  That reference point, even if mostly symbolic, really makes a difference, and that’s a nugget of wisdom that applies to all sorts of projects.  Having a public code of conduct sets the tone for an event or organization, and it makes a difference.  Here’s a link to a generic code of conduct for conferences, and yes, we still need a HOWTO Not Be A Jerk At A Conference.

As a beginner sysadmin I was viewed with bemusement, like hey, a girl learning computers, that’s so cute.  One co-worker even held both of his hands on my skin one day when I was wearing a sweater that scooped a little in the back.  I laughed it off b/c I was too shocked to do anything else, but you can bet that sweater was in the Goodwill pile the next day.  But a lot of coworkers actively took time with me and helped me learn.  So while I was indeed tokenized, I was at least able to benefit from it.

Early on, I made a classic women’s mistake.  I was offered a director position over a small operation and I turned it down b/c I didn’t think I knew enough.  The guy who took it was a total surprise–he started after me, knew less, was less careful.  From that, I learned to stretch to new positions, not grow up to meet them and then try to squish in.  (Update:  Asheesh’s comment below is a reminder that imposter syndrome plagues lots of other-then-women too.)

As I got older I got better at holding my ground.  I found that the more I act as though I expect my coworkers to be consummate professionals, the more likely they are to act that way.  That hasn’t meant being cold or impersonal, but rather assuming that people will act the right way and expressing disappointment when they don’t.  I’ve found that I can set the tone for the environment around me, even if it’s just a 5′ radius!  So now with warmth and a sense of humor, I actively create my professional context.

When that doesn’t work,  I make it clear that I’m not happy.  For example, when trainers or vendors consistently say “the firewall guy” or “the network dude” when they mean “administrator” or “tech”, I don a sly grin and point out that where I work, not all the “server guys” are guys.  If that doesn’t work, I say something on the evaluation sheet.  I point out that as a professional, I don’t appreciate being invisible.  Believe it or not, it works.

So that’s how I was adopted into the IT work world, and some ways I’ve managed to build my own professional context by expecting the best from my colleagues.

Later:  volunteer and leadership positions.

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