I just returned to Minneapolis from Velocity NY bursting with ideas as always. The program was saturated with fantastic speakers, like my new ops crush Ilya Grigorik of Google. And my favorite part, as always, was the hallway track. I met dozens of brilliant, inspiring engineers. Allspaw, Souders, and Nash really know how to throw a conference.
One exhilarating thing about Velocity is the focus on culture as a driving force for business. Everybody’s in introspection mode, ready to break down their organizational culture and work new ideas into it. It reminds me of artificial competence in genetic engineering. It’s a joy to experience.
But despite all this wonderful cultural introspection, y’know what word you don’t hear? Y’know what drags up awkward silences and sometimes downright reactionary vitriol?
As long as we’re putting our tech culture under the microscope, why don’t we swap in a feminist lens? If you question any random geek at Velocity about gender, you can bet they’ll say “Women are just as good as men at ops,” or “I work with a female engineer, and she’s really smart!” But as soon as you say “feminism,” the barriers go up. It’s like packet loss: the crowd only hears part of what you’re saying, and they assume that there’s nothing else to hear.
We need to build feminism into our organizations, and Velocity would be a great venue for that. I’m just one engineer, and I’m not by any means a feminism expert, but I do think I can shed some light on the most common wrongnesses uttered by engineers when feminism is placed on the table.
Feminism != “Girls are better than boys”
Mention feminism to a random engineer, and you’re likely to hear some variation on:
I’m against all bias! We don’t need feminism, we just need to treat each other equally.
Feminism is often portrayed as the belief that women are superior, or that men should be punished for the inequality they’ve created. Feminism is often portrayed as man-hating.
Feminism is not that. Everyone defines it differently, but I like the definition at the Geek Feminism Wiki:
Feminism is a movement which seeks respect and equality for women both under law and culturally.
Equality. Everyone who’s not an asshole wants it, but we don’t have it yet. That’s why we need a framework in which to analyze our shortcomings, conscious and unconscious. Feminism can be that framework.
Imagine hearing an engineer say this:
Our product should perform optimally! We don’t need metrics, we just need to build a system that performs well.
Would this not be face-palmingly absurd? Of course it would. Metrics let you define your goals, demonstrate the value of your goals, and check how well you’re doing. Metrics show you where you’re losing milliseconds. Metrics are the compass and map with which you navigate the dungeon of performance.
Feminism is to equality as metrics are to performance. Without a framework for self-examination, all the best intentions in the world won’t get you any closer to an equality culture.
Wanting equality isn’t enough
When feminism comes up, you might hear yourself say something like this:
I already treat female engineers equally. Good engineers are good engineers, no matter their gender.
Hey great! The intention to treat others equally is a necessary condition for a culture of equality. But it’s not a sufficient condition.
This is akin to saying:
I’m really into performance, so our site is as fast as it can be.
You might be a performance juggernaut, but you’re just one engineer. You’re responsible for one cross-section of the product. First of all, one person doesn’t constitute a self-improving or even a self-sustaining performance culture. And even more crucially, there are performance mistakes you don’t even know you’re making!
Promoting equality in your organization requires a cultural shift, just like promoting performance. Cultural shifts happen through discourse and introspection and goal-setting — not wishing. That’s why we need to look to feminism.
If you start actively working to attack inequality in your organization, I guarantee you’ll realize you were already a feminist.
Feminism doesn’t require you to be ashamed of yourself
When your heart’s in the right place and you’re constantly examining your own actions and your organization’s, you start to notice bias and prejudice in more and more places. Most disturbingly, you notice it in yourself.
Biases are baked right into ourselves and our culture. They’re so deeply ingrained that we often don’t see or hear them anymore. Think anti-patterns and the broken windows theory. When we do notice our biases, it’s horrifying. We feel ashamed and we want to sweep them under the rug.
Seth Walker of Etsy gave an excellent talk at Velocity NY entitled “A Public Commitment to Performance.” It’s about how, rather than keeping their performance shortcomings private until everything’s fixed, Etsy makes public blog posts detailing their current performance challenges and recent performance improvements. This way, everyone at the company knows that there will be public eyes on any performance enhancement they make. It promotes a culture of excitement about improvements, rather than one of shame about failures.
When you notice biases in your organization — and moreover when others notice them — don’t hide them. Talk about them, analyze them, and figure out how to fix them. That’s the productive thing to do with software bugs and performance bottlenecks, so why not inequality?
Where to go from here
I’m kind of a feminism noob, but that won’t stop me from exploring it and talking about it. It shouldn’t stop you either. Geek Feminism is a good jumping-off point if you want to learn about feminism, and they also have a blog. @OnlyGirlInTech is a good Twitter account. I know there’s other stuff out there, so if you’ve got something relevant, jam it in the comment section!
EDIT on 2013-10-21: Here are some links provided in the comments by Alexis Finch (thanks, Alexis Finch!)
Ada Initiative – focused on OpenSource, working to create allies as well as support women directly
Girls Who Code – working with high school girls to teach them the skills and provide inspiration to join the tech fields
LadyBits – adding women’s voices to the media, covering tech and science [w/ a few men writing as well]
Reductress – satire addressing the absurdity of women’s portrayal in the media [The Onion, feminized]
WomenWhoCode & LadiesWhoCode & PyLadies – if you want to find an expert engineer who happens to also be of the female persuasion [to speak at a conference, or to join your team] these are places to find seasoned tech folks, as well as for those new to tech to get started learning, with chapters worldwide.
http://www.meetup.com/Women-Who-Code-SF/ & https://twitter.com/WomenWhoCode
http://www.ladieswhocode.com/ & https://twitter.com/ladieswhocode
http://www.pyladies.com/ & https://twitter.com/pyladies