A Conference of Women

Today’s guest post is from Annie Wynn.
Annie Wynn has been a high tech wage slave for over two decades, from the east coast to the west, from startups to global corporations, and from programmer to product marketing to portfolio management. She’s currently working in Seattle. Annie balances work with a life of photography, kayaking, and writing. You can see more of that at wynnworlds.me.

Mondays are the best workday for me, with a full week ahead of good intentions and large chunks of time in which to level-set projects in progress, and get new things organized and moving forward. One Monday last month, however, the work week started a bit differently. I was in a room packed with women, participating in the first-ever day-long conference on women in engineering at our company. Given I’m a woman and I’ve been a programmer, a technical writer, a product manager, and now a program manager, I’m used to being in rooms mostly full of men. To be surrounded by over 200 women was indeed an amazing experience, but ultimately, it turned out to be a frustrating one.

Two panel discussions featured technical women from different divisions of our company. Nine of the ten were mothers, so the talking focused a lot on how to manage job and family obligations, and less on the other aspects of often being the only woman on the team or in the room. Yes, the challenge of raising kids while working is a big concern and a very visible one, but kids grow up, and you’re still going to be faced with gender discrimination and glass ceilings.

We need to move beyond the work/family questions and admit that much of the struggle women face in technical fields has nothing to do with being a mother. It has to do with being female. How do we present ourselves, plan our careers, handle the obstacles like gender stereotyping, and move ahead? If all you’re doing is focusing on how to manage your maternity leaves, you’re missing something.

Those of us who’ve been in the trenches for a while know what I’m talking about. We’ve been called aggressive where our male teammates were called assertive. We’ve been called out for being too strong for holding people accountable, instead of using our “woman’s touch” to get things done more sweetly. We’ve been expected to find that elusive balance of delivering the goods while not pissing anyone off because we’re supposed to be liked for our personality more than respected for what we do.

I cringed at some of the questions from the twenty-somethings at the conference: How do I get a mentor? What’s the best way to get ahead? I found myself thinking that men wouldn’t be asking these questions at all. They find a mentor, they figure out what it takes to get ahead. Some of us are still waiting like a Disney princess for someone to light the way and then reward our hard work by handing us the keys to the corner office. We focus on work/family questions because those are the easy ones, the solvable ones.

During each break, there was a very long line at the women’s room. Almost everyone commented about it because most of the time, we’re used to having the bathroom to ourselves in our buildings. If we’re going to get to the point where there is a line at the women’s room every day, we need to move beyond single-issue discussions like work/family balance and address the entire range of issues facing technical women in the workplace. Until we move past the “how do I get home for dinner with my kids?” questions and ask “why didn’t I get included in that meeting?”, we’re just circling around the big issues that will move us forward to an equal place at the table. And a long line at the ladies room.