How do you deal with the sexism?


Underground is pretty much “a man’s world”
– except when I’m there.

A colleague recently asked me how I deal with sexism in mining.

As I thought about my answer, I realized I hadn’t been conscious of sexism in mining but had of course been dealing with it. Mining is far more male-dominated than tech and a moment’s reflection was enough for me to recognize that I’ve observed some sexism there. I just hadn’t paid attention to it because it wasn’t a problem for me, any more than it has been in tech, banking or public safety. Like many other potential obstacles, I’ve worked around it and carried on. But the question caused me to reflect a bit on how I do that. I don’t know if my approach would work for anyone else, and I know that a lot of the circumstances where women experience it don’t apply to me, but I thought I’d share my approach in case it’s useful to others.

1)      I show what I can do

One of the things I’ve loved about tech from the beginning is that when I know something and can do something, people respect that. They care less about what I can’t do, what I haven’t done, or who I am than what I actually show I can do.

When I started out in tech as a second career at 31, I was worried about being 10-15 years older than my peers and much less experienced in tech than the teens who had hacking since childhood. I was hired by an ISP for my Cisco routing and switching knowledge but initially spent some time in tech support learning the business before moving to network operations. The fellow who showed me the ropes was 15 and I got the distinct sense at first that he and his peers were quietly rolling their eyes at the “senior citizen” who’d never managed a Unix system or even written a Perl script. In retrospect they were probably also underestimating me because I was female, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about my age and inexperience.

Before long, I had a chance to show what I could do. The network was down and the only person with passwords to the core routers was not answering his pager. I mentioned to my boss that if I could get physical access to the equipment, I could bypass the password. Management took me up on my offer and within a few minutes I’d identified the problem, corrected it, and restored service to our customers. Word travelled fast that, “poD_ can hack Cisco routers!” That was a major turning point.

In calling me by my IRC nickname, my peers were admitting me into the club. I was recognized as a “real tech”. While I wasn’t really “hacking”, the fact that I could bypass the password on the mysterious Cisco router and fix a big network problem gave me cred. From then on, I traded Cisco expertise for Unix expertise and never worried about my age or background again.

2)      By avoiding other negatives, I avoid a lot of sexism

People who make business decisions based on gender, or ignore good advice because of who it comes from, tend to display poor judgement generally.

I suspect I’ve avoided a lot of sexism by avoiding places that weren’t the right fit for other reasons. Sexism and other “isms” tend not to occur on their own.

Back in the 90’s I went for a network ops job interview at a big telco. I’d heard nothing but bad things about them as a workplace, all of it from men since there weren’t yet many tech women to hear from. Their reputation shouted “you’ll hate working here!” but they were a big name for the resume and had a big network I could learn from working with so I interviewed anyway. During that interview, I observed a lot of negatives about their approach and culture. I also experienced the only direct sexism I can recall encountering in my career when one of the interviewers said there are people in the department who don’t think women should work on networks. In the moment I was startled, but afterward I realized that was just one more nail in their coffin. They probably wouldn’t have offered me the job because I’m female, but I didn’t pursue it because the interview showed me it was just as messed up a place as I’d heard, maybe worse. Sexism was just a symptom of a much bigger problem.

3)      I focus on the variables I can change

In 2003, I had a chance to hear Dr. Veena Rawat speak when she won the Canadian Women in Communications (CWC) Woman of the Year Award. In 1972, Dr. Rawat was the first woman to graduate with a PhD in electrical engineering from Queen’s University. She was also an immigrant, having moved to Canada from India only 5 years before. As a female engineer and an immigrant in 1973, Dr. Rawat experienced discrimination far greater than anything I’ve encountered.

One of her comments in that talk has stuck with me since that day and I apply it often. When asked how she dealt with sexism in her career, she said something like this:

“I approach it like an engineering problem. There are always constants and variables, and some of the variables are out of your control. So I focus on the variables I can change and not the constants or the variables I can’t change.”

Words to live by. Even though I push back against sexism in society and industries, I’m rarely able to eliminate sexism and other irrational biases in specific people and situations. So I treat them as constants and get the job done anyway. From a practical standpoint, it rarely matters whether I’m being underestimated because of my gender, because I currently report to marketing instead of engineering, because I’m new to a company, or because someone thinks redheads are temperamental. What matters is that I’m being underestimated. So I deal with that, and work around people who are present barriers to my success.

I have friends and colleagues whose approaches are very different from mine, and I would never suggest that my approach is better for everyone. But for what it’s worth, it’s worked well for me.

About Sandi_Jones
Technical marketer, product developer, geek, unconventional entrepreneur. I fell in love with technology in the mid-90's, found my inner geek, and never looked back.

One Response to How do you deal with the sexism?

  1. julie says:

    What a very interesting angle on a very prickly subject!
    It wasn’t until I got *older* that I realized that sexism is still very real in the world. I don’t know if when I was younger I didn’t experience it, I didn’t recognize it or didn’t think about it.
    It’s sort of funny – the only blatant display of sexism didn’t come from technology fields, but from a sales and marketing field. I think there are still vestiges of the Old Boys Club that still permeates certain circles. Certainly it’s losing it tenuous hold, as those old geezers retire, but it was an uncomfortable feeling, that’s for sure.

    This is the best line:
    “One of the things I’ve loved about tech from the beginning is that when I know something and can do something, people respect that. They care less about what I can’t do, what I haven’t done, or who I am than what I actually show I can do.”

    Once people realize what you can do, the world’s your oyster 😀

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