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” !!!