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STOP doing this! (Image courtesy of news.com.au)

I’ve written a few posts about women in high tech, and if you follow my blog at all you’ll know I’m pretty critical of how the high tech industry treats women and behaves around women.  I completely dismiss the argument—and you can see it practically anywhere—that women just have to “suck it up”, that they’re treated “just the same” as men, that they need to “fit in better” to the industry’s culture.

To which I say: Hooey.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  One thing that irks me about many columnists is that they spend a lot of time complaining about something, but then when it comes to making suggestions as to how to fix the problem they just spent 15 paragraphs identifying and excoriating, they bail.  “How this will resolve Remains To Be Seen.”  (“Remains to be seen” is a common sign-off line on TV news, and is basically the same as saying, “I have no effin’ idea where this is going, so this piece was pretty much a waste of time.”)  I try to suggest solutions to the things I talk about in my posts, even if the solutions seem silly.  After all, silly or not, any suggestion could get a conversation started, and that’s when better solutions may come up.

But my suggestions for the sexist culture in high tech and what to do about it have been pretty limp and unsatisfying.  At least to me.  Which is why I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and the more I do the more I realize that while yes, we have to get more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, and yes we have to help women throughout their path into these fields.  But we—and by “we” here, I men “we men of the male persuasion”—need to do a lot more than passive cheer-leading and supporting our daughters working towards their C.S. degree.

We need to be proactive.

Now before you become untethered, let me be clear:   I’m not talking about some kind of “affirmative action”/quota kind of thing—though I believe that’s needed—nor am I suggesting that people “carry” poor performers just because they’re women.  (Although I also firmly believe that way too many men use the “she’s a poor performer” excuse as a cover for sexism, similar to “she didn’t quite fit in” or “she was a distraction to the team” or “her style wasn’t compatible with the organization’s needs”, or some other BS excuse that boils down to “We’re a boys club and don’t feel comfortable with girls around”.)

No, what I’m saying is:  We need to be proactive.  We need to actively support the women with whom we work, rather than telling them that they’re “acting bitchy” or “need to suck it up” or “work harder to fit in”.  Or almost as bad, just sit there passively when we see blatant sexism acted out right in our faces.  Let me give you an example:

You’re in a meeting.  There are 10 or so people in the room, and maybe 2 of them are women.  One of the women—the QA manager, say, a relatively tall, quiet, middle-aged woman with over 20 years experience in high tech—speaks up about a problem she sees from her vantage point in QA.  Before she has a chance to finish, some 20-something guy interrupts her, and then basically expresses her exact point.  What do you do?

I’ve seen this hundreds, maybe thousands of times.  You know what usually happens?  Nothing.  Women have had it hammered into them since birth to be quiet, demure, to not object; when they get run over like that, they often just shut up and remain quiet, because that’s what society teaches them.  And if they speak up, if they push back, if they ask (respectfully) to please be allowed to finish, many of the 20-something men (and alas too many of other ages) will complain to their boss or co-worker about what a “bitch” they work with.  She’s “too aggressive”; they “don’t feel comfortable with her on their team”.

Right now, any woman who’s worked in high tech is nodding her head while reading along, thinking, “Well, duh!  You might as well tell me rain is wet.”  While I guarantee you the majority of guys—even the ones guilty of this behavior!—are thinking, “Well, I’m sure that happens sometimes, but I don’t ever do it!”  Yes, you do.  I think about this stuff all the time and sometimes I still blow it.  It’s easy to fall back on the socially-dictated patterns.

What should you do?  Dude, it’s so easy; ask the rude interrupter to please let the woman finish.  “Okay, Biff, but I’d like to hear the end of what Jill was trying to say.”  That’s what I mean by “proactive”.  Don’t just sit there and let some sexist dork be sexist; jump in!  It can absolutely be done without being rude, putting anyone down, or even implying Biff is being a sexist dork.

If you’re running the meeting, go even farther:  Make sure you actively seek the opinions of the women at the table.  Women in high tech have been so hammered on for so long that after a while, many stop trying.  Do you really want to write off 20% of the brainpower in your room?  That’s idiotic!  Ask their opinions!  And further, make sure they get the space to finish their thoughts.  It’s your meeting; if Jill gets cut off, tell Dirk, “Wait a minute please, Dirk; let Jill finish and then you can make your point.”  Not only does this get the opinions of the women out on the table, it also implicitly chastises people for rude and sexist behavior and provides them with a model for how to do it moving forward.

(I believe the person running a meeting should draw out opinions from all those at the table, no matter their sex, but that’s a different topic.)

But don’t stop there.  Recommend (qualified) women on your team for high-profile projects, projects that will give them visibility and responsibilities outside of their immediate job area.  Recommend them for training—management training, technical training, whatever.  Be active in helping them advance their careers.  Trumpet their accomplishments to the org at large.  Mention them to upper management.  And on the flip side:  Mention the negative, sexist behavior to management as well—though I would recommend on first offense to limit it to not mentioning the particular perpetrator.  Something like, “Mr. VP, I’ve been noticing some fairly bad sexist behavior among some team members.  Perhaps you could make some kind of overall policy statement about BigCorp’s policy of inclusiveness and having a friendly and non-hostile work environment?  Maybe an email, followed by a few words at the next all-hands?”  Everyone screws up once in a while, and someone should establish a pattern before being called on the carpet, IMO.  But of course if Mr. VP asks, that’s a different matter.

I would also recommend that, should you be in management, you take some time to educate yourself on how men’s and women’s socialized responses differ, and adjust your behavior and expectations accordingly.  For example, when men get pissed off, they frequently yell, punch things, throw tantrums, etc.  Most men overt the age of, say, 25 are more controlled than that, but if you’ve been in high tech for any time at all, you’ve probably seen it; some VP is frustrated, and he yells at someone, or cusses them out.  Or even throws things at the conference room wall.  I’ve seen it happen.

(Yes, I know this isn’t true across the board, and certainly not true for trans and gender fluid folks.  What I’m talking about here are what society and our culture consider “typical” male and female behavior and responses.)

Women, on the other hand, often respond to anger with tears.  These are not tears of sorrow; they’re tears of rage and frustration.  But many men viscerally respond to tears with a subconscious diagnosis of “weakness”, and of course in business, weakness is death.

Unfortunately, women are in a double-bind here.  If a woman yells, curses, and rages, she is “a bitch”, “too emotional”, “needs to dial it back”, etc.  So she can either act like a woman and be punished for it, or act like a man . . . and be punished for it.

To repeat:  The solution is to educate yourself and be more cognizant of how sexes respond differently.  I think one of the best books on this topic is Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand”, but there are plenty of good ones out there.  But if you’re too lazy to read a book, all you have to know is:  Men and women frequently react differently.  Learn to roll with it, and stop putting the women on your team into an impossible double-bind.  Further, when you see them being so defined by others, point it out.

I’ve gone on at length here (and haven’t even touched on other land-mines like how women are supposed to dress, and how men can get away with flirting at work but women can’t, and many other areas), but the bottom line is actually pretty simple:  As men, we’re too lazy and been too passive, and we need to get off our flat behinds and get involved.  We need to work to help women be treated equally.  We need to act.  It’s on us, too.

So get out there, and act!

PS: For some of my other opinions regarding women in high take, feel free to surf on over to:

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