Woman geeks and their troubles


I don’t know what is the real definition of a geek. For that matter, I don’t know of a crisp definition for “nerd” either. When I hear “Geek” or “Nerd”, it  generally makes me think of the word “odd”.  I work for a consulting company, and I have a deep interest in technology. However, I certainly don’t think of myself as a geek or a nerd.  I have (and can be) called many things – but never a geek or nerd.

It is no secret that women are a definite minority in technology companies at all levels. I honestly do not know what causes it in a country like USA – especially in this day and age.  I have been working in US for about 10 years, and have worked for and with many women. And when I became a manager, I had women in my team. Not once have I seen anything that made me think they are any different from the men working alongside them  in the same team. 

My mom only studied till 10th grade, and she married my dad when she was 17.  She had me when she was 18. But, she was one of the first in her generation to drive a car and a motor bike, and was a succesful small business owner. My sister had a masters degree in commerce, and was an anchor in a popular regional channel. She moved to the US with her husband, and easily moved into a business analyst job. My wife is a civil engineer, and she is now studying computer networking, and is now aiming for her Cisco certification. Despite not knowing anything about computers – and being  one of two girls in her class, she has been consistently at the top of her college class. My aunt was a major in English literature, and decided to join Indian Police Service – and became the first woman from my state to do that.

The list goes on – and remember, these women are all from India, where social progress has been a lot less compared to US and other developed countries.  So if they can do this successfully, why would this be hard for women in general, and for women in developed countries in particular?  Beats me .

Recently, there was a survey that I saw which showed sharp difference between the pay for men and women in the technology I specialize in. This made me all the more curious as to why such disparity exists. I have been reading about this, and talking with others (both men and women) about this.  And then yesterday, a very accomplished lady pointed me to http://technicallywomen.com/ via twitter . 

Admittedly, the first picture that comes to mind when I hear the term “geek” is not that of a woman – it is that of a T-shirt and Jeans wearing guy, usually sporting glasses.  So , I have some difficulty thinking of women as geeks – thanks to how my mind has been conditioned all these years. I read through a lot of postings in that site – and have been fascinated at how women view themselves and their challenges. It was quite an eye opener – since this was totally not how I thought about the issues. 

Before I read this blog, I did not exactly realize that women in technology felt like they had to work twice as hard to prove themselves. In multiple posts there was the idea ” I want to be feminine – wear a nice dress, heels and make up, but if I do that – men think I am craving their attention, and they won’t take me seriously at my work”.  

This makes sense. Sure, if a girl is attractive, guys will look at her more than they will look at a less attractive girl. But this is true in reverse too – there are also some guys , who attract the attention of  a lot of female colleagues.  And this causes some halo effect for sure. If you like something about a person, you will extend that liking to other things that person does.  This is true for dislikes too.  So yes – I can believe that some of that halo should be affecting how work is perceived by others. 

However, I think this problem exists for any kind of minority situation. If I am the only chinese guy in a team of Indians, I will stand out. Question is – what do I do about it. I definitely will have to try harder and be more creative and smarter than the Indians in this example, if I were to succeed.  And come to think of it – most of  us have something that puts us in a minority.

Geeks feel that there are way too many suits in this world, and that is why their career does not go anywhere. Women think that there are too many men in the organization, and hence they have to work twice as hard for same benefits. I think that there are way too many professional dog handlers in US, that an amateur owner handler like me have no chance of winning a dog show.  Have you read the results of horse races – no horse in history has ever lost a race because it was slow. The horse always loses because  of  the wrong turf, bad handicap, inexperienced jockey, or a million other things – but never because it was slow. You get the drift – the only way out is to try harder. If you stand there with a lemon in your hand – nothing changes, and you still have a lemon. You squeeze it hard, and you can potentially have some lemonade.  There are plenty of examples around us to get us inspired – so it is not fiction, it has been, and can be done.

Another theme in the blog that picked my interest was about low presence of women speakers at tech conferences. This is also probably true, since I have presented at many events and have hardly seen many women speakers. But I keep wondering what is the cause.  Is it because less women apply? or is it because many women apply, but the guys picking speakers ignore many of them? or is it because women do not get funding from their companies to go present at conferences? From my personal experience, I have noticed that very few of my female colleagues have an interest in public speaking. There are a few who like it, and they present frequently at tech conferences. Similarly – in any of my employers till date, I have never seen any one being refused funding because of their gender . In fact, many male managers I know , within and outside my employer – including me, actively encourage  female employees to present at conferences. But of course this is not a large enough sample to derive any good conclusions.

And it is not all men who are making it hard for the woman geek. I think there are some women techies out there who do not think very high of other women techies. I recently asked a woman techie  that I know, about the glass ceiling, and pointed out to her several succesful senior women execs who seemed to be not affected by it. The answer stunned me “Did you notice that they are mostly blondes and have model like  figures” !!!

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4 thoughts on “Woman geeks and their troubles

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Woman geeks and their troubles « Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small -- Topsy.com

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  3. i thank you and commend you – once again – vijay – for diving in here. as you know, i found you because you reached out about the post over at technicallywomen.com — it was great that you asked for more information and read up about it and now that you share your thoughts.

    your family sounds incredible — your mom, wife – your aunt, the first female indian police officer in your state! — real role models.

    i do want to point out a few things that i differ with in your post though — and i thank you for being open to it — first —

    – “women are a definite minority in technology companies at all levels”
    — true, but/and one of the most disturbing things is that they are more a minority at the higher, highest levels.

    – “Admittedly, the first picture that comes to mind when I hear the term ‘geek’ is not that of a woman – it is that of a T-shirt and Jeans wearing guy, usually sporting glasses.”
    — an honest stereotype — but ask yourself more probing questions to take yourself beyond the gender stereotype trap here: a comment over on technicallywomen.com brought this up : do you think “pioneering science wizard” when you hear the term “wheel chair bound quadriplegic mute”? that’s a guy, and his name is Stephen Hawking. stereotypes are very real.

    – “Women think that there are too many men in the organization, and hence they have to work twice as hard for same benefits.”
    — with this i must digress, at least in my opinion. i have no qualms about “too many men” in an organization — but the pay gap? it’s startlingly real and not a perceived fiction.

    got to admit you lost me a little bit on the dogs and the lemons we’re holding as well — maybe i’ll get it when i read it again!

    “the guys picking speakers” at conferences, by the way, are also women too — @pahlkadot has some great pieces about her endeavors to get more women speaking at tech conferences – you should check ‘em out!

    – “From my personal experience, I have noticed that very few of my female colleagues have an interest in public speaking.”
    — if true, you have to look at a very complex set of conditions/pipelines that leads to this — and we talked about lots of this via Twitter. do they have financial means? is there childcare by the way? have they encountered many many other subtle roadblocks? there’s so much complexity here — i’d disagree with the statement “women have no interest to speak” per se, but perhaps have been conditioned to accept this lesser status? and don’t mistake it: it’s lesser status: not speaking leads to less authority, less influence, yes — less cash – and lack of role models, perhaps most devastatingly to “the pipeline” — lots of this has been discussed over at http://technicallywomen.com/

    – “The answer stunned me “Did you notice that they are mostly blondes and have model like figures” ”
    — to you, this implies that women themselves are holding themselves back by self-imposed stereotypes? this is often only too true — but let me offer you an alternate way to look at that women’s statement: if she was saying (as you note above), blonde model-like women get looked at more often and therefore get promoted to the top more often, then it’s quite a stunning statement of what’s perceived to be of value in a woman – from a woman’s perspective, and very sad if reality bears it to be true.

    thanks for the forum for the honest discussion;
    -m

  4. Hi Moya, thanks for taking time to read this and the excellent comments you made.

    Let me clear the air on the reference to dogs first – I am active in showing dogs competitivly as a hobby. However, in Dog shows – there are people who show professionally. Professionals generally win more than me – and there are more of them than people like me. But this does not stop me from tring harder to beat them fair and square at the next show.

    Women being in a minority in top management is probably correlated somehow to the lesser number of women in IT in general. Kind of similar to this – look at the number of people from India at lower level in big IT companies, but how many are in top management? very few. I doubt that this has anything to do with competence of the people directly, and I am fairly sure this ratio will improve with time.

    The pay difference between men and women – it is absolutely deplorable. I think this is true for experienced women, compared to entry level women. From my limited visibility, there is no gap between guys and gals getting into the same IT job out of college. And I have never seen any descrimination in compensation reviews based on gender in my employers where I have had visibility. So my guess is that this was a case of the past when there was big pay difference, and a lot of women who started their careers earlier, are still suffering the injustice . Other than jumping across organizations and bargaining for more money in new job, I do not see this gap getting closed for the majority through organic growth in a company.

    The Stephen Hawking example is striking, but it is more dramatic than statistically significant in my mind. Majority of scientists do fit the stereotype, and are unlike Hawking. But I understand the risk of stereotyping well – you made a good point.

    I spent a lot of thought on the woman speaker topic. In my employer, we all – guys and gals, sign up for 100% travel. So going for a client facing gig and going for the conference are exactly the same in terms of difficulties at home. So it boils down to interest, abilities and funding. I have not seen a lady speaker being declined funding because of gender. And about the general decrese in speakers – look at a tech blogging site like SDN. That needs no extra hardship- no worries on child care, travel etc. But why is it that we hardly see many women blogging there? There are a few excellent bloggers who are women in SCN – but they are a tiny percentage. So there must be a deeper reason why women are hesitant to express their opinions in public – whether it is via blogging or via conference sessions. Thoughts?

    This is an important issue, and I am very keen to contribute in whatever way I can to make IT a level playing field for every one. Not just for women, but for all minorities.

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