An hour before my turn to speak at VelocityConf Europe 2014, I sat listening to the talk before mine. The room’s 163-person capacity was pushed to the limit, and the room was well-lit, contrary to all my public speaking nightmares.
Mark Barnes, from the Financial Times, was discussing how companies need to actively practice decommissioning older machines. “These old aging systems, they were costing time and money. They were increasingly unreliable, but turning them off is not a spectacularly glamorous thing,” Barnes explained. Many folks in the room sheepishly admitted to using operating systems that were over 10 years old.
In my head, this was a metaphor for the oppression ingrained in tech culture: how years would go by, and your team would still be using Solaris 9 — and how years would go by and the women who’d been on your team all that time would still be making less than the new guy who joined last week. Then Barnes’ talk was over, more than half the room left, and it was my turn.
Before this moment, I'd been worried. I worried about what sort of questions people would ask and whether there'd be a lot of trolling. I worried I would accidentally say the most offensive thing possible. I worried that my jokes wouldn’t be funny, because it can be really hard to rationally explore feminism using humor. (There’s that joke: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The response: “That’s not funny.”) I worried about talking too fast, about leaving out valuable information, and about the nauseated feeling in my stomach. This was my first time speaking in public, I was over 5,000 miles from home, and I felt microscopic.
My talk, Mansplaining 101: Cisadmin Edition, was submitted on a whim. I didn’t feel technical enough to talk about the work I actually do, so I applied to speak on the Culture & Organizational Change track. I was the only woman on that track, though I was not the only woman at VelocityConf actually talking about culture — some women on other tracks addressed these topics. It turns out that talking about feminism is hard. Ultimately, I could speak only to my experiences, and the intersection of feminism and tech culture is much bigger than just me.
So I got help. I sent out a questionnaire to women and gender minorities in tech, and received an overwhelming response of personal stories from anonymous folks in the industry. These stories were the backbone of my talk. They ranged from quoting the well-intended-yet-clueless remarks such as, “As a father <advice to you, the employee>,” to explicit acts of ignorance, “A coworker of mine is constantly referring to me as 'Mom' when I ask him to do something...which is very derogatory.” Here was my reassurance that this is a real issue, and that my talking about it might somehow help shed light on what day-to-day sexism in the tech industry looks like.
To share these stories and give people a tangible way to interact with the topic, I made a small command-line Ruby program to display random quotes from the survey. Typing “Ugh” gets you a random run-of-the-mill microaggression, “Conf” gets you an incident at a work party / tech meetup / conference, “Advice” is from one woman in tech to another. I added resources to this script, so folks could type a keyword in and get a random website about feminism or racism or ableism or ageism, or one of the many other forms of oppression-isms that intertwine with each other. I even turned my slides into ASCII art and slipped them into the program. The entire thing is here on GitLab, but if you want to cut to the meat of things, here are all the quotes pulled for Ugh, Conf and Advice.
Standing at the podium, my nerves took over and I have blacked out everything between “Hello my name is” and the end, where I raise my arms in triumph. But above all, what I do know is that talking in front of the 70-ish strangers there (perhaps 10 female) was actually not the scariest part of my talk. Back home and reflecting on my talk, I realize that the scariest part was practicing in front of coworkers. My coworkers aren’t scary people, just to clarify. I would never have spoken about feminism in front of a bunch of strangers without their support. But talking about feminism to them was scary because that’s where the most impact can happen. Talking at a conference is surreal, because you build all this energy towards all these ideas and then you go home and it is over. Practicing in front of coworkers caused active discussions about how to be inclusive at our work, and times when we haven’t felt included. Even though I work at an impressively progressive company, we will always have steps we can take to be more inclusive.
Being inclusive is tough, especially if you are trying to include people who are so used to being on the outside that they keep themselves there. For example, I’m offered the chance of a lifetime to fly to Barcelona to talk about feminism, and my response is to feel microscopic. Shouldn’t an opportunity like that make me feel big, or at least not-bad? And there’s the fact that I didn’t feel technical enough to give a talk about the work that I do every day, and I still don’t. Sure, I could label this as impostor syndrome and call it a day, but I think it’s important to own these insecurities even if it makes me squeamish. There’s a phrase I go to when I’m scared: “Bravery is being afraid of something and doing it anyway.” The buildup to my talk weighed me down with doubts, but the encouraging feedback from my coworkers helped me carry those insecurities.
Confidence can be hard to come by, especially in an industry dominated by the socially awkward. But we need to help build confidence in our peers so we can have these open conversations about how to be inclusive. We need the smaller discussions, across various departments, where folks feel safe and comfortable enough to share experiences, questions, and advice on how to customize our path to progress.
I can’t give a talk that will change the world, but the ripple effect from my talk is certainly comforting.
If you want to learn about what subconscious sexism can look like and how to battle it (hint: it involves interrupting), here’s a link to my talk.