How do you deal with the sexism?

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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.

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When we all win, we all win – Karen Schulman Dupuis @ MaRS on women in tech

A tweet by @NrthmbrlandCFDC (via @GITdot) brought me back to this great post by my friend Karen Schulman Dupuis who manages Digital Communications for@MaRSDD:

When we win, we all win   ksd

When I first read it back in the spring, I was transported back to the day more than a decade ago when those girls came to the office where Karen worked in sales and I worked in Network Operations. Along with other female colleagues, we talked to them about being a woman in tech. We had high hopes that seeing our passion and hearing how much we loved what we were doing would excite the girls and be a turning point for many of them to choose tech careers. We gave it our all. I even threw in a data point that I thought might be more persuasive than our career talk – I confided that some of us had discovered that quite a few men find technical women very attractive. (It’s true! I swear my hotness rating went up a few points the day I first taught the boys in tech support how to troubleshoot a Cisco router.) But whether on sizzle or steak, we hoped we’d piqued the girls’ interest and would find ourselves working with them some day.

Well, according to Karen, we touched at least one. She took a summer job in our Engineering department. But what about the other 29?

We don’t know what happened to them, but even if they’re an exception from the statistical norms, it’s unlikely that many of them pursued tech careers, which is too bad. Karen’t post touches on some of the challenges of getting more women into tech but true to form, she also highlights some of the good news.

With so many grassroots groups working to encourage girls into tech careers and provide support networks for those of us who chose tech, I think the future looks very bright and with MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht named one of Canada’s most powerful women,  things are looking  bright. I’m hoping that by the end of 2013 we’ll see another column from Karen with even more good news from her perspective working with entrepreneurs at MaRS.

What do you think? Should we keep working to get more women into tech?

How mentoring others helps me

This is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the CanWIT e-Mentoring program’s blog. I mentor three women through the program, and the program’s Community Manager, Colleen Fraser, asked me to write about what I get out of  being a mentor. Here is my response.

Doing What I Know: What mentoring does for me

Long before I realized that I was a geek who loves technology, I was a French Horn player. Throughout high school and my music degree, I studied with a teacher who influenced me in more ways than just my ability to produce beautiful music from a coiled brass cone. My horn teacher was a major influence on me, and to this day his words often come to mind in my business life.

Among the things he often told me was this:

“It’s not that you don’t know what to do. You just don’t do what you know.”

Only now, those words have even more meaning because as a mentor I find myself giving advice that I need to remind myself of as well.

Mentoring others benefits me in many ways, but as I reflect on some recent experiences I’m struck by how much mentoring others is a reminder to “do what I know”.

Case in point. One of the women I mentor through CanWIT’s e-mentoring program was struggling with how to package herself to get noticed and valued by potential employers. She was dealing with a dilemma I often have as well. Her skills are both broad and deep, and there are many roles she could love and excel in. If she describes herself too generally, though, she won’t resonate with employers seeking a particular subset of her skills. But if she targets too narrowly, she won’t be noticed by those wanting skills she hasn’t highlighted. So what to do?

It’s an issue I’ve wrestled with as well. I excel as a product development leader, but also in business development and marketing. I’ve achieved great things leading teams in large bureaucracies, but also as a maverick individual contributor aligning others only through influence. Which Sandi should I promote?

It’s easy when there is a known, posted opening because we can tailor to the position. But most jobs aren’t posted so what about more general communications? When networking, people say, “What do you do? What role are you looking for?” Telling them, “It depends” doesn’t get us very far.

As I talked with my mentee, I found myself relaying a marketing class experience where the goal was to select a target segment and position the product for them. Most in my workgroup struggled with concern that we would miss most of the mass market by choosing a target segment, but it was clear to me that we would miss ALL of the mass market if we didn’t target anyone. By explaining what our product could do for one segment, we inspired the others. Now they could see the product’s value and come up with their own use case for it.

I’d seen that many times over, presenting potential uses for technical products to businesses and watching the magic as the customers began to chat amongst themselves about how it could work in their business. I felt cocky because my classmates were learning something I’d known for ages.

I didn’t feel so cocky when telling the story to my mentee, though.

I couldn’t, because the story was reinforcing what I’d been doing wrong in looking for a job or projects for my company. I wasn’t giving my target markets much of a clue what I could do for them. I was hoping they’d see a list of “Sandi product features” and figure out how they could use me.

Why? Because I was afraid that by defining my value to any of them, I’d miss out on the rest.

It’s not that I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t do what I know…

By teaching what I know to someone else, I reminded myself what I know about product marketing and realized I wasn’t doing that for “product Sandi”.

I think this is one of the most valuable things about mentoring, and another recent experience reinforced it as well.

I had the opportunity to get advice from a very senior executive – a successful CEO and board member who was generous enough to give me some of her time. After she’d given me a bunch of really valuable insights, she asked for my feedback on HER resume. Yikes! I was nervous. What do I know about a CEO/Board Member resume, I thought? How could I possibly add value? But it was the least I could do in return so I said I’d be happy to.

She sent me her resume, and as I stared at it (marvelling at how effectively she had summarized decades of experience on only 2 pages), something stood out to me as missing, one of the basics of resume writing. I wasn’t sure it would apply to a CEO, and I was nervous that she might see my feedback as evidence that I’m not at her level, but I bit the bullet and sent her a note telling her what seemed to be missing, Her response?

“You’re right… don’t know how many times I’ve told others that”

Wow.

It’s not that she didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t done what she knows. Just like I sometimes don’t. Like we all sometimes don’t.

And so it goes. Even the best of us don’t always do what we know.

Mentoring young colleagues, and even advising someone senior to me, gives me a chance to look at myself through a different lens and to hear myself offering the advice to others that I myself need most.

Mentoring reminds me to “do what I know”. I’m grateful to those who accept my mentorship for those reminders. I can only hope that they get as much from our interactions as I do.

Who’s lying to you?

Lie spotting expert Pamela Meyer gave a great Ted Talk on “How to spot a liar” where she opens by mentioning that lies are a cooperative act. The lie gets power when someone agrees to believe it. She mentions this only briefly before focusing on how to spot lies but it was enough to get me thinking.

Sure, we knowingly agree to go with the lies sometimes. “You’re the best kisser I’ve ever known!” But what about when we don’t recognize that we’re being lied to? Maybe the liar is just that good. But how often is that?

How often, instead, does something subtle tell us we’re being lied to but we choose to ignore it? We don’t want to believe we’re being lied to. The lie is telling us what we wanted to hear. Or maybe we just don’t want to deal with the implications the person lying.

Meyer’s brief comment at the beginning of her talk is food for thought.

When we go along with lies, we’re not really being honest with ourselves. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.