I attended a software conference last week as a customer. It’s a huge annual event with all day training courses and discussion, talks of future plans, and past accomplishments. There are happy hours and networking opportunities and entertainment. It was my second time attending and the event itself has only improved over time. In general, I had a great time. I learned quite a bit and came back to my office inspired.
There was, of course, still the irritating gender bias. There’s the good conversation that leaves you encouraged until it ends with some comment about your looks wrapped nicely in a comparison and insult to other women: “I have to say, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve sat next to at this conference.”
Trust me when I say, you really don’t.
There’s the behind-your-back call out in a training room filled with a majority of white men exclaiming “You must be a sorority girl!” because you know the difference between an epsilon and a sigma.
The fact that I was in a sorority in college isn’t really the point. It’s the stereotype he was going after, which he later admitted to me claiming it was an attempt to call me the coolest one in the room. And yet it resulted in introducing yet another point of separation between me and my peers.
During a happy hour networking event, I was encouraged to partner with another group because out of the group of 5, there was only 1 female who “hasn’t been with the company for very long and we don’t want her to look like a slut.”
I came home and told my husband about the good, bad, and ugly of my trip and he relayed a different side of the issue from a conference he recently attended. He explained that he was in a conversation with a woman and was surprised by her level of engagement. At several points, he expected the conversation to draw to a close but she would ask one more question. One more question. One more question. Based on his past experiences, he expected her to walk away after light small talk.
Now, I don’t know this woman and I am 100% speculating on their interaction but here’s my perspective based on my own conference experiences: Perhaps this woman came across someone who saw her as an equal and was surprised at the professional level of conversation. Perhaps she held onto that conversation because she wanted to exchange knowledge with her peers. She wanted to network.
If you’re a woman in a male-dominated field, do you find yourself walking away and cutting conversation short because of comments that do not belong in a work environment or because you want to leave a good conversation before it turns?
The thing about bias is that it can be overt or subtle. And the effects of that are also overt or subtle. A woman who fails to network is at a disadvantage. In some cases, the disadvantage is forced on her and in some cases, she may choose the disadvantage having been conditioned by past experiences.
For the longest time, I didn’t understand the need for programs that hold places for minority groups. I’m ashamed to admit that now. When I was younger, I naively believed we should be measured on things like grades and extra curricular activities alone. I didn’t factor opportunity or lack thereof into my equation. And while I was taught to appreciate those programs, I’m afraid to say that my support lacked understanding until I experienced gender bias for myself and really began taking notes.
I know a lot of people who don’t understand how bias plays out in everyday life. Again, I have been one of them and am one of them still. I do not claim to be fully aware of my own biases. But I know that they exist. I have been on both sides of the coin and it has taken me a lifetime to see that for myself.
It’s a difficult topic and I don’t really know how to wrap up this post. There’s no tidying this topic into one nicely wrapped package. It is so muddy and it involves so many different backgrounds. So instead of trying I will leave you with these two positive interactions at the conference:
I was able to talk about my interactions with my coworkers. They’re an amazing group of men, supportive and willing to hear and learn from my experiences. They ask me questions. They may be completely comfortable with the topic or feel completely out of their comfort zone; frankly I don’t know because they keep the line of communication open.
I also had a great conversation about work and the challenges of software evolution and work culture and family life with a man, a conference minority, that I sat next to during an evening of dinner and entertainment. We were sitting at a table of 8-10 and the two of us sat silent for a moment. It took a little time for us both to warm up to the conversation but it was incredibly enjoyable and encouraging and we’ve since reached out as networking contacts.