I recently had the privilege of joining my colleagues for another panel on women in technology at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. The statement, which two different attendees said to me, that still catches in my throat is, “I feel seen, but seldom heard.”
This is a hard issue, and my own experience with being seen and not heard has happened over the past 10+ years I’ve been in technology management and the Salesforce for nonprofit sectors in ways great and small. Very high profile attempts, such as Dreamforce 2013 (the Dreamforce “Year of the Woman”), have made me feel quite seen – only to have business-as-usual return for Dreamforce 2014. A co-worker once privately told me that he purposefully repeated what I said during management meetings so that the director would actually hear what I was saying.
Listening to the women who attended our panel this year, these issues become further complicated for us when race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexuality and gender presentation are all added on top of our identities. The only hard data that exists confirms what we already know, and which Hillary Clinton herself called, “shocking:” that IT has a problem with women.
On a good day, I want to believe in my heart that our time is coming – not, as was posited during Dreamforce 2013 as “observers to management meetings” to “learn about” what we don’t have, but as participants in what we achieve and own for ourselves. On a more cynical day, I think that maybe it’s because we’re too physically and emotionally exhausted by the time these kinds of leadership opportunities arise, and we’ve already opted out of the sector entirely.
“Leaning in” is simply not enough – we’ve been placed in the untenable position of being told to do so while being punished for making the attempt. We’ve had proposed and actual laws on the books as broad as the ERA and recent as Lilly Ledbetter to support our endeavors, yet the pay gap hasn’t closed. We’re fighting a war of culture, ideals, values, and assumptions every day – the nature of which means that we are called weak for not demanding more, too aggressive for making the demand, and the necessity of stringent legal enforcement for women’s advancement not clearly understood. Because, after all, it was “just a joke.” Or, this is just “how things get done.” Or, we should just “man up” and everything will be fine.
Herein lies the problem: We don’t “man-up” by the very nature of who we are. Partaking and participating in what is clearly a “Bro” culture is not a scalable or winnable strategy. We need to change the literal context in which we work sufficiently enough such that the curators of what becomes normalized in our everyday interactions and biases overwhelm that which has been written for the past 50+ years in IT. The time has come not just for mentoring circles and celebrating the individual success of our (precious few) women leaders, but for a change in the baseline recruitment, retention, and human resource policies of our industry to level barriers to women’s (re)entry.
Some days I think that co-founding BrightStep Partners was simply a way of doing something with the absolute rage I feel at the experiences I’ve had in this sector as a woman, despite how much I truly love this community. I was quoted on the women in technology panel at the 2014 NTC as saying that women in IT don’t move up, we move out and move on, which is the only way moving up becomes possible. I still believe this to be true. But, changing jobs and founding our own institutions is also an untenable solution – it requires time, money, effort, and tenacity that our lives and contexts don’t necessary offer. Every day I remind myself that launching our own firm is a privilege, in addition to our right, as women.
Here’s what I can say. We need to be more than aggressive in how we recruit, interview, support, and create a new culture for women working in our arena, especially moving into organization leadership and executive positions. At BrightStep Partners, we will give our time to the cultivation and elevation of women as nonprofit staff, colleagues, consultants, and co-workers in the Salesforce for nonprofits area as part of our own 1/1/1. We’ve become too accustomed to a world in which the normative white male technologist is what we’re all supposed to aspire to imitate, and in order to change this, we all must rise.
And what of men? Especially those who are our allies and supporters? I’d offer that this isn’t about equality, this is about equity. Equality simply means that the status quo rises, but equity means that we all do, including you. As men working in our sector, you bear an incredible responsibility to help make this possible. Mindfulness of your status and biases and ease by which you navigate the world of IT is only the beginning. It’s time to go back to the basics:
- Take active interest in the careers of your female counterparts. Men sponsor each other through a series of conscious and unconscious decisions that revolve around “doing right” by other men. Women don’t speak this language – we don’t “do right by,” we simply do. And it looks different than how men lead and support each other. This isn’t a meritocracy, and we shouldn’t pretend that men always advance and achieve profile simply on the basis of their own merits.
- Make yourself safe for women to approach. We don’t care about your problems with your wives, we don’t want to be the default office homemakers that pick things up and write things down, and we aren’t translators for our entire gender. Mentor two or more women together so that one-on-one dynamics don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. Think outside of the box.
- Ask yourself why you consider a woman leader “too opinionated,” or “not a team player.” Could it be the very same reason why you consider a man “good salesman for his point of view” or “a change agent?” Are you sure?
- Stop the “Bro” culture before it happens. You’re braver and stronger for calling out other men for this. Offhand remarks that demean women are as serious and consequential as those that demean race, ethnicity, sexuality and many other identities. It’s not “our time of month,” we aren’t “bitchy,” we’re not “gossips,” and we don’t want to be “tapped.”
- Speaking of Bro culture, stop making business outside of business hours convenient for men. And, most of us don’t want to go to cigar bars, clubs, golfing, or a host of other activities that are defined by men. Be mindful when you’re planning hiring, firing, business development, and partnerships of who isn’t in these rooms when you make decisions and reschedule to bring them in.
Until we aggressively change the creators of culture and values in the IT sector by changing how we hire, sponsor, and elevate women, we will still be wondering why we haven’t made progress in 2020. Neither laws nor “Leaning In” can change a dominant culture and value system, only by purposefully creating a new dominant alternative can this happen, and a new cultural re-interpretation of women’s leadership achieved.